Friday, 28 June 2019

The Arsonist Entertains - review of Salad Daze, Wayne Hussey's autobiography

Barely a month goes by without my local Waterstone’s displaying a new tome devoted to one of the cult bands of the 1980’s, be it The Smiths, Joy Division or even Motley Crüe. Yet curiously not one major book has yet been written chronicling the history of one of the most wilfully mysterious, most avidly collected and most revered bands of that era, The Sisters of Mercy.

The endless fascination of both TSOM fans and media alike has been with a brief period of the band’s near forty year existence, between the release of the Alice single in late 1982 and the acrimonious split in the band in 1985, shortly after the release of debut album First and Last And Always, often referred to as the cornerstone of gothic culture.

A couple of years ago, a fan commented on the Heartland TSOM fan forum that he had wanted to answer questions on the band for his specialist round on BBC TV’s Mastermind quiz programme, but had been prevented from doing so because of the lack of any formal books published about the band. However, this situation is finally now changing with the future publication of Mark Andrews’ crowd-funded history of the band, and this memoir from guitarist Wayne Hussey, whose career is always seen through the prism of the two years which he spent in the band between the autumns of 1983 and 1985.

Salad Daze is the first of his two-part autobiography, and charts the Mission frontman’s life from his birth and early years in Bristol through to his departure from the Sisters of Mercy thirty-four years ago. The eagerly anticipated book promised to lift the lid on Hussey’s time in the band, and given his penchant for amusingly provocative yet self-deprecatory soundbites, it was clearly going to be an unmissable read for all Sisters fans.

I have to confess to being disappointed on receiving my copy and discovering that two hundred of  the three hundred and fifty pages dealt with his life before he joined TSOM, but I expected that I would skip through these chapters at some pace in order to get to the “real deal”.

However, this mood changed instantly as I began to read the Prologue, an incredibly moving account of the circumstances of his mother’s pregnancy and of his birth, which was both well-written and a coruscating exposé of the moral double-standards of the late 1950’s. Indeed, rather than flicking rapidly through them, I really savoured the early chapters, which would strike a chord with anyone who grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with its everyman tales of family holidays, conflicting emotions and chance encounters with minor celebrities from Specimen/Banshees guitarist Jon Klein to former Villa winger Ray Graydon. Wryly observed and well-expressed, Hussey’s memoir is both engaging and thought-provoking, and he is (retrospectively at least) generous in his assessment and evaluation of those who played key roles in his formative years. I can well imagine that even the resolutely non-goth Mrs L will enjoy reading these early chapters when I pass the book to her.

So it’s over one hundred pages in before Wayne joins his first really serious band (Ded Byrds) having moved to Liverpool, and each subsequent band up to and including Dead or Alive is dealt with in impressive detail, with Hussey’s memory untainted by the ravages of drugs and alcohol at this point, as he stayed true to the teachings of his strict Mormon upbringing. This means that we get an insight into the legendary Eric’s scene and the development of Scouse luminaries such as Echo and the Bunnymen, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and, erm, A Flock of Seagulls, plus the development of Planet X club where Hussey used to DJ.

During his latter years in Liverpool and his time in Dead or Alive in particular, the guitarist began to dabble in drugs, discovering the joys of speed in particular, and his touring experiences thereafter become a bit of a haze. Sadly, this is particularly the case during his stint in the Sisters, and Hussey himself confesses that for some tours he remembers virtually nothing! For others he has vivid memories of the sex and the drugs, but sadly very little of the rock’n’roll, so what should be the most fascinating chapters of the book become a tedious litany of whizz and groupie reminiscences, which nonetheless reveal that Eldritch would not have had to use much imagination in coming up with many of the lyrics for the songs on FALAA (“nothing but the knife to live for”, “And I don’t care what you’re called, tell me later if at all” etc).

However, Wayne is never shy of an opinion or an amusing anecdote, and is particularly strong and surprisingly objective at analysing the subtext of the group dynamic, stating that with hindsight the band’s ultimate 1985 split(s) seemed almost inevitable from the moment he joined the band, and providing a great deal of evidence to back up his assertion.

Although he acknowledges that it is difficult to reconstitute with total accuracy events of almost thirty five years ago, Hussey presents his recollections of the reasons and issues which finally saw him leaving Eldritch and forming his own band with Craig Adams, accepting that the “real truth” would emerge from an amalgam of the reminiscences of all four members, rather than just his own “truth”. His account is however the only one published in detail to date, and is sufficiently honest and candid to give a highly credible breakdown and timeline for the band’s demise, which is incidentally largely similar to the version (factual or otherwise) uncovered by “enthusiastic online sleuthing by a fan”. In particular, his portrayal of the complex character and behaviour of Andrew Eldritch is laudably even-handed given both the huge frustration which this had caused him at the time, and the way in which he has been subsequently viewed by a zealous faction of rabidly pro-Eldritch Sisters fans (whom he describes as “a bigoted, sour bunch”) who continue to hold him (Hussey) solely responsible for the 1985 break-up. Although proud of the fact that (like Craig Adams) he refused to change his name to join the group (as Andrew, Mark and Ben had done), it has to be said that Hussey like Eldritch becomes a rock’n’roll caricature with his shades, hat and black clothing, enthusiastically adopting the trademark lifestyle far removed from his previous and subsequent existence.

Even for the most obsessed TSOM fan, there are plenty of new facts and anecdotes in Salad Daze about Hussey’s time in the group, from technical details of the guitars he played through information about song-writing credits to stories about the likes of Jez, Danny and Grape which some of them might wish had remained private. And certain long-standing mysteries, such as why Eldritch began wearing hats, the circumstances in which Marx and Hussey had a trial at replacing Eldritch as vocalist and the origin of the phrase “Victims of Circumstance” are elucidated en passant.

By turns entertaining, enlightening and though-provoking but always disarmingly frank, Salad Daze is a great read despite some sloppy editing which has failed to remove some basic errors, contradictions and repetitions. But these are minor quibbles with what is a highly recommended publication, which comes with its own WH curated Spotify and YouTube playlists and a variety of editions including a deluxe package which contains previously unheard recordings from Wayne's early years in bands in Liverpool. Chapeau, Wayne!

Salad Daze is out now, published by Omnibus Press, and is available online from The Mission's website.