In which our guest blogger, Little Annie, regales us with tales from her unpublished biography. In this chapter, the little lady from New York travels far far away across the ocean to take up residence with a gang of British anarchist hippie punks called Crass. They call her “Annie Anxiety”.
TEETERING DOWN the single file country ‘road’ that snaked its way to Crass’ Epping Forest home in my faux Frederick’s of Hollywood stilettos and dragging my equally glitzy chi-chi drag behind me, I may not have been the quintessential ugly American, but I was definitely the quintessential inappropriately dressed one. As the country lane turned into a path through a mud-slicked cow yard, I couldn’t help but wonder where this incredibly hip-and-happening second English Explosion Jammy Wonderland that all the knuckleheads back in New York were always yapping about was. Just as I was figuring that I was the butt of a very expensive and complicated episode of Candid Camera, the smoky-eyed, Jean Seberg-cropped Crass vocalist, Eve Libertine, drove up and rescued my quintessential daft ass. As we pulled up to the sixteenth-century former labourer’s cottage in Eve’s old blue Mini, its soft beauty knocked me out. Some members of Crass had found this once uninhabitable wreck many years ago, seen its potential and rented it from the farmer, who thought they were crazy, hence the ridiculously affordable rent. Hard work had turned this crumbling structure into a House and Garden – worthy Zen dream, and one that was more or less obscured by beautiful lush vegetation. Inside was equally impressive, immaculately clean and lovingly handcrafted. It was paradise, except for one little thing – it was in the country.
I had believed from the conversations with Steve (Ignorant) I had back in New York that they all lived in some sort of English version of the projects. In one of his letters, he had spoken of everyone sitting around in the garden. I just assumed he had meant a vacant lot or basketball court. I mean this was rural with a capital W, and I’m just not down with the country groove. It scares the hell outta me. Country life is all about the natural order: the cyclical process of growth and decay, sowing and harvest, waxing and waning. Children raised in rural areas grow with a firm comprehension of birth and death. City children have no such acceptance. We beat death by aspiring toward immortality by becoming drug addicts, boxers and movie stars.
If the country is Friedrich Nietzsche, then the city is Liza Minnelli.
Besides, people in the country mate with their first cousins. The sweetness of country air was underscored by the stench of decomposing life, for things that were once alive were now lying around rotting beneath the seemingly peaceful, rolling greenness. I remember coming back from the village one day and finding Steve and his mate Andy skulking around the cowshed. I asked what they were doing and they invited me to a viewing of an unusually bloated and stinking pig corpse. And to think we were reduced to going to the movies for entertainment back home.
Needless to say, I politely declined. People in the city don’t die; they just go out for a packet of cigarettes one day and never return. Because of the way my new address read, my friends back in New York thought I was in a therapeutic community. “Dial House”. Stateside, the word ‘house’ translates as institution or rehab, and in a sense it was like a rehab for me. My time at the farm was probably the closest I had been to living the ‘clean and healthy life’ since adolescence, and certainly the closest I would be again for many years to come. Drugs were not acceptable, for many reasons, the main one being the vulnerability of the house and its tenuous place within the local community. There was seldom any liquor, and nor were there a television, radio, or newspapers. I could never quite understand the word ‘hippie’ being continually used by the press in conjunction with Crass. The word hippie implies hedonism. For me, at least, this was more like living as part of a gentle paramilitary organisation, a loving faction of the Khmer Rouge.
Looking back, it probably saved my life. These people grafted hard. The joint needed constant upkeep; there were thirteen cats to care for, garden and vegetable patches to tend, and many mouths to feed. These were the early days before their seminal album Feeding of the Five Thousand was released and parachuted them to fame, so capital was earned through handyman work or labouring for the local farmer.
One time I pitched in by potato picking. I started that first morning (which commenced at the crack of dawn) full of romantic notions of toiling the good Lord’s earth with the dew-drenched soil damp and wholesome between my fingers. I imagined myself grafting like my ancestors for the common good of the common man. Two backbreaking hours later my attitude was, FUCK the common man, let him pick his own goddamned potatoes. The only potato I ever wanted to see again was a distilled one.
It took me a while to identify individual Crass personnel. As I said, everyone dressed uniformly in black distressed neo-military drag, had cropped spiky hair, and possessed at least three aliases. I was never entirely sure who exactly was being referred to. Add in the discrepancies in vocabulary between the Queen’s English, and the bastardised American version that bounced so fluently off my tongue, and you had a surrealist sitcom just waiting to happen. I spent my time bewildered, although only the threat of a slow and violent torture session would ever get me to admit it. As these were peaceful people who did not torture their houseguests, I fronted it out.
Besides Steve on vocals, there was Joy De Vivre, who, like Steve, was a native of the Dagenham area. With her classic English looks and almost shy demeanor, she gave me the impression at first of frailty, but the truth was she was a tough cookie. Then Eve Libertine, a talented beauty whose dark poetic side was tempered by a quick wit and the ability to have dumb fun (and dumb fun warms God’s heart). A single mum, and great singer, we got tight, and would work on ideas together. On guitar was Phil Free, who was bringing up his three children in a tiny cottage nearby, full of the most wonderful bric-a-brac, mainly acquired from jumble sales. On rhythm guitar was Andy, who had art school training and a quick sense of humour. Like Steve, he was closer to me in age than the others, though his organisational skills were beyond his years. He did most of the ‘management’ duties for the band. Pete Wright was the bass player. A thinker, with a civil engineering background, and a true sense of the surreal, it took me a while to warm to him, but eventually I did. Penny Rimbaud was the drummer, producer, and was responsible for setting up the open house that we now inhabited. He was a philosopher, and a handsome bastard to boot. And finally G, a graphic artist and painter who had lived in New York for a while, and who was so talented that she could have stayed there and made a fortune, but instead had chosen to return to England to take care of the aesthetic end of Crass.
This was a group of truly good, idealistic people with a vision. They were from various backgrounds and histories but were joined together by the shared belief that things could be better. They were not trust-fund babies, terrorists, or any of the other stupid presumptuous insults that some cynics suggested. I hadn’t found Utopia, but I had found a group of people who had the faith to believe that it exists, and were prepared to work their asses off in order to find it.
Crass’ basic philosophy, and this is only my interpretation, was pretty straightforward. Just because we inherited a culture and value system, that doesn’t mean it’s sacrosanct. It’s okay to question, and the only way to change…is to change. All life is important, and should be treated with compassion. Taking individual responsibility and directing your efforts toward the greater common good might make the world a nicer place to visit.
Of course, Crass were not saints, simply human beings, and as we all know, there is no perfection to be found in that realm. These folk, though, were genuinely good folk. Their goodness made me want to protect them, as I had seen enough ugliness, and had seen it sour the sweetest of flowers. Everything in Epping Forest was so different from New York that I stumbled around in a semi-permanent state of klutzdom. I was fascinated and intimidated by this brave old world where people made their own bread (which, until coming to England, I didn’t even know was possible), drank endless cups of tea, and had major discourses about philosophy and politics. I tried to keep up, but my lack of education glared, at least to me. Their reference points were Sartre, Jung, and Laing, and mine were Drag Queen Bobby, Marie the Whore, and Junkie Jimmie from Dykman Street. This last grouping had their own validity as philosophers, but at the time I felt like some dopey little juvenile delinquent who walked funny due to having her grimy foot planted firmly in her mouth.
I was also impressed by how much work was devoted to the band. Undeterred by the lack of an audience in those early days, Crass seemed to take an awful lot of maintenance. The rickety old stencil printing press ran constantly, printing info sheets and ‘books’. G worked on her magazine International Times, banners were painted, songs were written, rehearsals rehearsed, equipment repaired, all for the benefit of the seven or eight people who somehow managed to wander into the shows. At least when the gig was with the UK Subs, they were guaranteed an audience; the Subs would watch Crass, and Crass would watch the Subs.
Having come from the Warhol school of ‘If it didn’t get press, then it didn’t really happen’, I found their tenacity commendable, if slightly bizarre. Meanwhile, I was living a born workaholic’s worst nightmare: inactivity. I continued scratching away at my poetry, and depleting my dwindling supply of Valium.
The lack of outside media stimulation one day forced me into cracking open one of the thousands of books that lined the walls of their library. I think it was Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. I had been at one time a voracious, precocious reader, writing book reports on Truman Capote and Carson McCullers, but I had hardly picked up a book since bunking outta school at the age of fourteen, and this taste of literature made me realise I was starving. I had arrived at Crass’ finishing school for wayward punkettes, and I devoured book after book.
We had some basic differences of opinion at this Essex idyll. The aesthetics of inner decor was one. The house was very streamlined in decor, almost Japanese. I thought this was due to poverty, and tried to cheer the place up by hanging my rosary beads all over the place. One time I surprised Pete Wright by ‘cheering up’ his monastic room by tacking tons of photocopies of Marilyn Monroe that I had hand-tinted all over his bare cloister walls. Boy, was he surprised.
There was also the little question of God. I was still grappling with my own belief system. Looking back now, I can see that a lot of my endless quest for excitement and trouble was a misguided search for a God I could understand. To this day I still cannot stomach most of the messengers, but I love the message more as time passes. To me, if you remove the various politics, you are left with the crux, which is compassion. God is my rock, and when I remember that, life is pretty straightforward. Now, I’m not for one moment suggesting that Crass were godless, just saying that records like Christ The Album made me uncomfortable. Knowing them, and knowing their spiritual innuendos, I knew where that attack on organised religion was coming from. However, as I have learned over the years, innuendo doesn’t always translate in art. I was afraid for them that it would be taken the wrong way, and inevitably it was. Mind you, if I heard a song containing the lyrics, ‘I am no feeble Christ, he hangs in glib delight upon my body’, at this point in time, I wouldn’t be rushing to the record and tape exchange to pawn my Mahalia Jackson records. I wouldn’t want to have it banned either, though. The Good Ship Censorship can only take us into murky waters.
Small Wonder, the independent record company in Walthamstow that put out Crass’ first LP before they started their own label, couldn’t find a pressing plant willing to cut the Feeding of the Five Thousand album with the track ‘Reality Asylum’ on it. So in the end the band replaced it with ‘The Sound of Free Speech’, which was two and a half minutes of silence. The album was hardcore, with lyrics that spoke of everything from the greyness of the assembly line at Ford’s plant in Dagenham to the troubles in Northern Ireland, all flavoured with Crass’ trademark militia groove-thang.
After the release of the band’s first record, things around the house changed dramatically. If it was busy before, now it was gruelingly so. I know that Crass never expected to be as successful as they were, and it’s hard to maintain a cottage industry when you’re hitting platinum sales figures. God bless them, they worked hard at maintaining their integrity, but it sure was a grind. And me? It wasn’t so much that I eschewed New York and decided to stay in England, as I got so enmeshed that leaving did not seem possible. Like San Francisco, a couple of years earlier, the place had consumed me. I acclimatise like a chameleon, and with Fate acting as my travel agent, planning and foresight were not my strong points. I never let things like common sense, practicality, fact, legality or logistics stand in the way of doing what I want to do, where I want do it. Remember this the next time you invite me to your home. Just like a puppy, a diva is for life, not just for Christmas.
One day, Penny Rimbaud was looking through one of my notebooks when he found a piece I had scribbled called ‘Shaved Women’. A photo I had seen from World War II of a shaven-headed female Nazi collaborator being marched through the streets of Paris had inspired it. This would be their next single, sung by Eve Libertine, with the previously censored ‘Reality Asylum’ on the flipside. Not long after this, Penny asked if I would work on some pieces to perform live with the band, as they wanted to create multi-layered happenings as opposed to just getting on stage, playing songs and getting off again. He fashioned a rhythm track from alarm clocks, telephones, spliced cassette tapes, and various technological chotsky. And that’s how I unintentionally joined the avant-garde, although to this day I’m not quite sure what the ramifications of that are.
I have always tried to maintain certain honesty to my output. Obscurity and obtuseness for their own sake irritate me. To my mind, my work has always been for mass consumption, and my first single ‘Barbed Wire Halo’ for Crass Records was no exception. At the time I truly thought I was working on a Euro disco hit. I thought I was Diana Ross, but in reality I was more like Kathy Babarian. Nonetheless, the single sold well and received good press. I have been fortunate in that the British music press have always mostly liked what I do. Lyrically, the A side was concerned with the Jonestown massacre in Guyana. It had just happened, and the idea of a mass suicide and its emotional ramifications beguiled me. I mixed this with my homesickness and longing for a can of Coco Rico (a coconut soda indigenous to the tri-state area).
In fact, I listened to that disc recently, and was floored as to how ‘out there’ it still is. This further confirms a growing, sneaking suspicion I have about myself that I’m basically out of my fucking mind. I see ideas that I have so vividly that as they gestate within my psyche they achieve familiarity. I’ve heard some of the most beautiful concertos played by the wheels of a subway, or the valves of my father’s printing press. I guess that’s why I’m still excited by hip-hop, as it basically celebrates the fact that supposedly everyday noises are actually extraordinary – which, if you think about it, they are.
Crass and myself often played gigs with our neighbours from the next village, the Poison Girls. Their front woman was Vi Subversa, a 47-year-old mother-of-two. As a matter of fact, the whole band was pretty curious, given the closed-minded nature of the ‘not all that much goes’ genre of rock and roll. This just made them fit right in with the oddball theme of a Crass evening, though. Their un-hipness just made them all that much more hip. Combine all this with slides, films, backdrops, flyers, and Miles Davis records pumped over the sound system between acts, and it was no wonder we sometimes confused people.
After Crass broke big, though, whenever they took the stage, the joint would usually explode. I’d look out from my vantage point at the side of the stage, and watch a sea of faces singing virtually every word along with Steve. There were clearly a lot of dissatisfied citizens out there.
Thanks to my newfound profession, I visited many a fresh terrain. We went on a tour of the Netherlands, and it was in Amsterdam that I decided I abhorred marijuana and all its fluffy silliness. We’d arrived in Amsterdam the night before the first show. It had been a ferry crossing arranged by Satan himself. The waves had been typhoon-worthy, and I can still see the mountains of home-made food that Joy de Vivre had diligently prepared, slipping and rocking back and forth like something out of a Popeye cartoon. We were all sick as dogs.
Despite this, I was eager to see this famous Dutch liberalism in action and, ditching the others, proceeded to get sloppy. By the time the gig at the Paradiso club got underway, I was so paranoid and sloppy that I wanted to crawl behind a speaker cabinet and hide there. I hung out with some guys from Surinam while Crass were on stage, knocking back vodka in a vain attempt to feel anything other than the effects of the hash. Some girl walked by wearing a pair of pantyhose as pants, devoid of undies. It looked so ugly and self-hating, and combined with the pot to depress me intensely. I got the distinct impression that beneath this ‘all is permitted’ attitude was an iron fist, just in case one really bucks the status quo. I have since learned to enjoy the Netherlands experience, but that whole tour was a misery for me. The audiences didn’t spit, which was nice, but they didn’t do anything else, which was boring. And I’ve never again been able to stand even being in a room where grass is smoked. Give me a nasty drunk, or a nodding junkie, any day. At least I can predict how that will run. Pot-heads just remind me of bewildered toddlers.
I also made it to Paris with Simone, a French artist who along with her English boyfriend Simon stayed at the house from time to time, and my friend Bruno, who used to bring homemade soup to the assorted flophouses that passed as my homes back in New York. Simone stayed with her family, while I went between Bruno’s and the flat of Flavio and Cerise, a really nice junkie couple, who were something to do with Johnny Thunders. My lack of clothing was about to take a turn for the worse. I was working a Chinese gown drag at the time. Who knew you couldn’t boil silk? I love Paris, but every time I go there, it gets funky, and not in a James Brown way either. It always ends in blood almost being shed. That first trip, I saw nothing but the red light district and its faux-fur underbelly. We made it to Notre-Dame at one point but fell asleep. I still have a tiny rosary with coral beads that Cerise gave me hanging from my altar.
A few months after I arrived in London my intestines twisted up and I spent a couple of weeks in hospital in Epping. The ward was pretty and filled with medicated women whom I’d paint dopey still-lifes for. There was another lady there for the same condition, and we’d shuffle out to the lounge in our pajamas with our morphine drips and smoke cigarettes. They really did have us doped up, and when I finally got out (after discharging myself) I was shocked to see that not only had autumn come but it had gone too, in the time I was out of action. I felt weird. Maybe I was just missing my drip.
Back in Essex, I started a band with Sid, who was a seven-foot-tall drummer, Tommy Womble, a red-haired ragamuffin, and Vi Subversa’s two children, Gemma and Pete, who were about ten and twelve years old. We called the group Rubella Ballet, and Womble and I split the vocals. We’d rehearse at the Poison Girls’ big ramshackle house, which was a couple of miles from Crass’ farm. I used to cycle there, which seems unbelievable to me now. I’m terrified of traffic, hence why, after successfully starting to learn, I decided to vigorously pursue not driving a car. I dislike being entrusted with that amount of power within my control.
Rubella Ballet worked better without me; musically it just wasn’t my thing. I had strong musical ideas, strong enough to cause Sid (who would change the tempo mid-song just to avoid getting complacent) to ‘Sieg Heil’ me behind my back. We had some kicks though, wrote some decent songs together and did some good shows in Bishop’s Stortford with the Epileptics, who later became anarcho-syndicalist band Flux of Pink Indians, who were famous for an album called ‘The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks’. It’s funny now to think of all these great little punk enclaves which were spread throughout the Essex countryside.
Crass had got hold of a semi-professional video camera. I was obsessed with it. When home video came out I embraced the concept wholeheartedly, believing it would revolutionise filmmaking and there would be a proliferation of genius works pouring out of every household. I spent hour after hour in the music room doing stop-frame animation, which turned out pretty good considering the primitive nature of the technology. I couldn’t figure out any way to make it work except for setting up a shot, shooting, pausing, and running across the room before the damn thing un-paused itself, and then running back behind the camera, hopefully without knocking over the tripod. I made a film of myself shaving my legs while wearing high heels, with lots of fake blood and, due to that damn tripod, plenty of real blood too. How was I to know that this new art form of the people would be primarily used for weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, and, God help us, homemade adult libraries.
At least once a week without fail I’d get on the tube to London, and go to the £1 picture house on Shaftsbury Avenue, to sit through a double bill of Taxi Driver and Midnight Express. I was religious about this practice for ages. Taxi Driver helped fill the New York jones I had going, while Midnight Express reminded me on a weekly basis never to smuggle drugs across borders. Over the years, the style of my various residences has often been influenced by film. When I saw Apocalypse Now I ran back to Essex and recreated Kurtz’s jungle hideout in the pleasant English countryside.
My other recreational activity was to walk up the hill to the liquor store, buy a pint of whiskey, and then drink it while performing a concert for the cows. They would come right up to the wire fence, and watch me with their big beautiful eyes as I performed a selection of show tunes. Cows are big on musical theater. Instead of Judy at the Palace, or Sinatra at the Sands, it was Annie in the Cow Yard. The idea that my bovine audience would end up on my plate one day eventually became unbearable to me, and I gave up meat, though I feel about that as I do about most things – that it’s a matter of personal preference. Ultimately, it’s none of my business what others choose for themselves.
The cow concerts were about as close to nature as I was willing to get. It wasn’t unusual to come downstairs in the morning to a corpse-covered kitchen floor, courtesy of the house’s many cats. When I was in the house alone, the carnage would go into overdrive. Those cats really must have truly loved me, bringing me so many bloodied sacrifices, but I just wished they hadn’t loved me quite so much. I can take just about anything, just not dead things.
With Crass’ ever-growing success came an endless stream of fans and European visitors coming through the house. No one was ever turned away. It was weird to wake up to the sight of some Milanese punks staring through the window at you. The Cult singer Ian Astbury used to come to all our northern gigs, and some of the southern ones too. He often stayed at the house, and was obsessed with Native American culture. A fanzine editor called Mike Dibol who used to stay with us memorably christened him ‘Squatting Hamster’. The whole fanzine scene was real lively, and there was some fresh stuff circulating, including Sniffing Glue, Vague, and countless others. I enjoyed the spirit of people being bothered to make them; even if you had to keep turning the pages all different angles in order to read the tiny text that was the vogue back then.
I wrote two slim volumes of prose in this period that were actually printed by real printers, paid for by Lance DuBoyle from the Poison Girls, who ran a small press at the time. The spelling was appalling, and I’m afraid I’ve yet to improve that particular skill. It was through these small press publications that I was introduced to the work of avant-garde icon and art agent provocateur Genesis P. Orridge and his band Throbbing Gristle. I noticed they were playing in London and went to see them and say hello. I liked their holistic approach to entertainment. Gen is now living in New York, and I figured out the other day that we have now known each other for over twenty years (not that we’ve been on speaking terms the whole time, but we’re speaking now, and that’s what counts).
I tried supplementing my zero income with various get-poor schemes. It’s not that I’m opposed to cash; it’s just that oftentimes in my life it’s been opposed to me. I guess I just never cared enough. I came upon the idea of making my first million via the production of Christmas ornaments made with clay, the components of which were flour, water and salt. I worked around the clock, aided by Joy, Eve, and Simone. The ornaments looked pretty swell laid out on trays as I set off for Camden Market at the crack of dawn one very wet December morning. People were very interested in purchasing these cute little cottage industry frou-frous until they picked them up for closer inspection and they started dissolving in their hands like wet bread. I tried blowing on them and patting them down, but to no avail; they went mouldy before my very eyes. It was deeply embarrassing. Santa’s Grotto as decorated by Hieronymus Bosch.
One of the many visitors to the house was an old friend of G’s from New York named Charles. One day we were sitting around the kitchen table, and as usual some polemic was kicking around, when Charles and I looked at each other. At the same moment we got up, put on our boots and walked out the door, heading under the railway bridge toward the main fields of the farm. Charles was just to become one of my dearest friends. Charles was originally from Selma, Alabama, and had that wonderful Southern way about him. He also possessed a magical sense of style, an eye for putting two seemingly nothing things together and creating something special. He lived in Little Italy, though he spent a lot of his time at his boyfriend John’s crib in the Flatiron district. He was very funny, reminding me of a big stylish Southern bear. It was not out of the ordinary for Charles to grab me on my way out somewhere, pull out a needle, thread, and some beads, and suddenly in what seemed like minutes, my nothing black dress would be this glittering one-off Charles Of New York original. He was one of the most quietly talented people I have ever known, and I learned a great deal from him. Luckily for me he visited often, and when I would visit New York I always stayed with him. Looking around my present apartment, I can still feel and see Charles in the way a piece of fabric drapes, or a grouping of flowers.
Crass also continued to broaden my mind on the travel front. Our next port of call was Iceland. I wasn’t excited about going, as in my mind I’d confused it with Greenland. I expected a snowy wasteland, so was pleasantly surprised when we got there. It was like being on a white powdered moon with volcanoes, geysers, craters and wonderful sulfur pools. Bjork, Einar Orn and their pals, who had a band named Kukl (who later became the Sugarcubes) arranged the trip. Also on the bill was Megas, the greatest poet in Iceland, and a Bruce Springsteen-type named Bubby, who was Iceland’s greatest rock star.
Everyone I met there was Iceland’s greatest something-or-other, which was no great shakes as the total population of this country was at the time only 250,000. Reykjavik appealed to my sense of absurdity. Liquor was state-controlled and prohibitively expensive, so every time I went there I was accompanied by mercy crates of beer.
One of my favorite Icelanders was Gullugurk, aka Guli, aka Godchriste. He was Kukl’s guitarist, and a mad-eyed mathematician with a wiry walk and quick brain. His playing was as sharp and manic as his intelligence, and I loved his theories, even though I’d question their scientific soundness. Guli once showed me a map he had designed for the studio. Naturally, Iceland was larger than North America and China combined. Icelanders are nationalistic if nothing else. Since just about everyone lived in the tiny capital of Reykjavik, if you sat by your window and looked out onto the street, you would eventually see just about everyone you knew walk by.
A number of years later I was back in Reykjavik for an anti-apartheid benefit live over Icelandic TV. All went well enough, and I somehow managed to learn the choruses of Megas’s songs that Bjork, her sister and myself sang backing vocals on. I did an a cappella version of Billy Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, called it a day, and went back to my guest house to discover that I had been burgled and that the only thing that had been taken was a black silk slinky camisole. Cash, papers, and all that jazz were intact, which led me to believe it was the Northern light form of a crime of passion. It summed up the whole place perfectly
That visit, I was fortunate enough to be there in the summertime. The skies were nothing short of majestic. It never really got dark – just darker – mauves shot with copper and green, just a blink from a terribly blue eye.
Touring continued as I visited Holland, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland with the Poison Girls. I was especially stoked to be going to Berlin for the first time. We drove through the East and I traveled with the PA, riding shotgun on the bulkhead, grooving as the East German army did maneuvers with tanks and bonfires along the side of the motorway. We stopped at government-run motorway cafes and ate beet salad served by elderly gentlemen in tuxedos.
As we crossed through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin and continued toward Kreutzberg, we started spotting a lot of action on the streets. People were screaming and whooping it up, and bonfires were burning on street corners. As none of us had been there before, we assumed this must be everyday street life in decadent pre-reunited Berlin. When we found the address of where we were staying, one of the revelers came running up shouting in German. I asked him to repeat himself in English, and he shouted, ‘Reagan’s dead!’ It turned out that while we had been driving, David Hinckley had attempted to assassinate the President. Ronnie was still very much alive, but as far as Berlin was concerned, he was a goner. Everyone we came across appeared to be very happy indeed about that.
I was so anxious to see this infamous Berlin Wall that I asked anyone in a uniform (and there were many) where it was. They kept telling me, and I kept ending up at this real nothing-looking, graffiti-covered gray thing that I assumed was obscuring a building site of some sort. After asking another Village People reject where this Wall was, and ending up back at the gray thing, the penny finally dropped. In my imagination the Wall had been like the Great Wall of China. This was it? It wasn’t till I got a higher perspective and saw the double wall with the tank tracks, barbed wire and gun towers that its full impact penetrated. I spent a couple of hours a day just staring across to the other side, and saw the same guard two days running. He looked toward the East to find out who I was looking at. Fearing I was inadvertently getting someone in trouble, I left.
We played our first show at the Music Hall, and as I walked in for sound-check, the first person I ran into was Jayne (ex-Wayne) County, another ex-pat from New York, who was living there and DJing. I was so happy to see a face from home that I got stewed on Schnapps, went to the ladies’ room right before going on stage, and I couldn’t figure out how to unlock the stall. So I did the sensible thing; I climbed over the top and jumped in, screwing up my ankle, and had to literally limp my way through the rest of the tour. The bartender made a snide comment about ‘how he hated drunken women’, and I suggested to him that he wasn’t much partial to sober ones either, and a change of profession might be appropriate. The show was good but the hospitality sucked eggs.
On we went to Zurich, Switzerland, where an officious border guard who was troubled by a green marble that I carried in my purse harassed me. It was funny to see this fool in a monkey suit rolling my marble along the pavement, utterly bewildered. He didn’t think it was funny at all, and could not understand the purpose of carrying something with no obvious function. Eventually he begrudgingly let me in, making us even more horrendously late than we already were. After being onstage for a few minutes that night, I was beginning to wish he hadn’t let me in after all. This crowd made the shenanigans back in the UK look like child’s play. Windows were breaking, bottles were flying, and when I got too close to the edge of the stage, some guy kept trying to stab me in the ankles with a switchblade. There were plenty of Sieg Heils and Hitler salutes, and though I had seen ugly…this was real ugly. I got through my set and left the stage for the poor Poison Girls to follow, but while they were on some-body set one of the backdrops alight. We got through this chaotic shambles only to find that the tyres of the PA truck had been slashed. So we slept at that god-awful joint, as we couldn’t risk leaving the equipment.
Now, this is how bizarre things there were. Upon waking, which we did early, the broken glass was already being replaced, the graffiti had been painted over, and it was like the whole craziness of the previous night never happened. I twigged then why the promoters seemed so laid-back while all this was going on – it went on all the time. The place was like a fucked-up playground for overactive kids to work out their aggression, so they would behave themselves in the real world. It gave me the creeps. There was something sterile and controlled about everything. I felt like a bit of a patsy.
We stopped in a bar for breakfast that morning. There was a huge basket of hard-boiled eggs on the table, and we ate the whole lot whilst waiting for our drinks. You gotta remember, these early tours were no frills, you ate when you could, just like at the Horn and Hardart on 86th Street, or the chickpeas on the tables at Max’s Kansas City. But when the bill came, it was huge. Here we were, in the land of the Swiss bank account, and this chick had counted our eggshells. We felt it necessary to gun that van back to Germany like the Sound of Music in reverse. I usually refuse to speed in cars, but like my escape from Barbara and the clip joint a few years earlier, I can still taste the freedom that hits my stomach like a particularly fine bourbon.
By the time we hit Belgium, a Flemish performance artist by the name of Claude had joined our crippled, road-worn troupe. His shtick was meat. He made paintings outta animal parts, and would bury them and then dig them up at various intervals to photograph the various stages of decomposition. Sometimes the results were quite stunning. I know, because this gentleman sent me meat photos for many years to come. He was playing with carcasses while Damien Hirst was still getting his into a school uniform. The good thing about having Claude on the bill was that compared to him, I was as mass-consumption friendly as Abba. He’d go out there every night, throw bloody slops at a bunch of veggie punks, and every night they’d try to kick his ass.
I traveled by train from Heidelberg to Brussels with Bernie the bass player, who was all excited as his fiancée from the UK was traveling over to meet him. Everything went fine till we had to change trains in Basel. We crossed the tracks, got ourselves seated, and filled with dreams of home and loved ones, prepared to groove our way into Belgium. And groove we did, for hours and hours. This was confusing, as it should have been a short journey, and one that didn’t include the French countryside that was rolling past our window. When the conductor came through for the tickets, we had to tap dance not to get our silly asses chucked from the moving train right into that very same French countryside. We were on the slow, scenic train to somewhere in France with no francs, no food, and no chance of making the gig. The conductor took pity and wrote us a note that probably translated into ‘Let these two morons change to the appropriate train’, which I was grateful for. Poor Bernie was buggin’, probably envisioning his upcoming nuptials disappearing in a cloud of unfiltered Gitanes smoke. I had a hard candy egg about the size of an eyeball that I had purchased in Holland and a bottle of East German vodka. We hadn’t eaten a thing, and that vodka went down rough. A gypsy joined me in drowning Bernie’s sorrows. We eventually pulled into the train station in Brussels just as the show was ending. I went back to London, as Crass’ U.K. tour was starting the next day . . .
And that’s the way life went for a long time. Which was fine. I love touring. I love the powerlessness of the situation, the bunker mentality, the sense of the unknown – even though your life is planned by someone else, more or less, down to the last minute. I dig the lack of options, the lack of thought involved, and though you could choose to worry about your life back home, you would be foolish to, as there’s nothing you can do about it from a van or bus stuck on the outskirts of Nuremberg.
As I have often said, I love traveling; I’ve been blessed with being able to see places which as a child I could only dream about. Before Freddie Laker, short of picking a draft lottery ticket to the sunny shores of the Mekong Delta, foreign travel was not really an option for my demographic. It’s a blessing I will never take for granted. Sometimes I find myself in some new foreign street, and I’m overwhelmed by the very fact of where I am. I love maps. I love meridians and the lines of latitude and longitude. Also, some of my firmest friendships were forged on tour. You get to know someone real good when you’re with him or her 24 hours a day. Secrets go out the window. I’ve worked ‘real’ jobs, and my appreciation of the road has only increased over the years.
As Crass’ popularity increased, so did the already overwhelming workload. They were running their own record company, and we toured endlessly, and primitively. In the midst of this, we were eternally under scrutiny from cynics trying to find the holes in Crass’ anarcho-philosophy and the way they conducted their affairs. Everyone was starting to look real tired all the time, and constantly getting sick just due to plain old overwork. It seemed that despite the fact that we lived in the same house, suddenly we hardly saw each other. And what did I know about making it big?
An acquaintance of mine was in London, working as an A&R woman for one of the major record companies. We met for drinks and she asked me to come see some Irish band at the Marquee that she said everyone, including her employer, was hot to sign. She made such a fuss that it seemed foolish not to see this Second Coming of Christ myself, so off we went. I thought, and told her as much, that we were witnessing a proficient, average pub rock band, and suggested she was crazy to be interested in signing them. The band was U2 and I was right, they sunk without a trace.
It was a good lesson. I know to stay on my side of the desk, and my end of the microphone. The business only baffles me – when it isn’t too busy boring me. Bless those who can muster the get-up-and-go to get up and go out every night in pursuit of the Next Big Thing. Lord knows, though, I lack that sort of enthusiasm. Give me Sinatra, or a man with health insurance, any day. Just don’t ask me to talent scout for you.
I also knew that it was time for me to quit my rural Essex abode. There were a number of clues to this end, one of them being that Crass asked me to go. This was fair enough. I am a child of the metropolis, I need a certain amount of action, and when there’s none available, I have the tendency to create some of my own. Also I had a feeling that my own identity was being censored before I had even had a chance to find what that identity was.So, I’d played my last concert to the cows. It was time for Annie Anxiety to move to London.