It’s only been a couple of weeks since he died, and already the manner of Mick Farren’s passing has entered into rock legend – a legend that he himself had much to do with perpetuating in the first place. Onstage at London’s Borderline with his band, the Deviants, a clearly sick and frail Farren suffered a fatal heart attack and died, as they say, with his boots on. And surely the only regret that he could ultimately have is that he wasn’t then able to write about it.
A lot has been written about him since then, of course, most of it acknowledging that this was a passing that nobody saw coming. As a writer, as a musician, as a commentator, as an oracle, Mick Farren was a force of nature, a blur of wild hair and impenetrable shades, trailing the scent of exotic intoxicants in his leather jacketed wake, a character stepping out of one of his own books or articles – of which there were so many that even the weighty Elvis Died For Somebody’s Sins anthology that appeared earlier this year could only scratch the surface.
As a music writer, Farren was the voice of the underdog rising up to tear out the throat of its overlords; it is almost a cliche now to reference his 1976 article “The Sinking of the Titanic” as a principle ingredient in the then-fermenting punk rock ethos, but it is true all the same. Just as it was utterly in keeping with Farren’s own self-iconoclasm that he should then deny the story had anything to do with it, by dating it one year later in the anthology. In June ’76, when the article actually did appear, punk was a storm still waiting to be birthed. In June ’77, which is what he remembered when compiling the anthology, it was all over bar the belly laughs.
The best, and most meaningful of which were provided by him, courtesy of three stunning record releases throughout the late 1970s, all of them saying more for Punk as a political cause than 99% of whatever else bore the label. First, for New Yorker Terry Ork’s eponymous label, a single revisiting a song he wrote with Lemmy for Hawkwind, a pharmaceutical nightmare called “Lost Johnny,” recounted at a pace not far short of light speed. Second, for Stiff, an EP’s worth of urban decay led off by the irresistible “Let’s Loot The Supermarket (LIke We Did Last Summer); and finally, an album, Vampires Stole My Lunch Money, on which the opening number celebrated “Half Price Drinks.”
And even they weren’t the pinnacle of Farren’s musical disobedience; a decade earlier, he led the Deviants across three album’s worth of anarchic joy that not only blueprinted the punch of punk, they gave the best-known rebels of the late sixties a run for their up-against-the-wallet protests. He followed through with a 1970 solo album, Carnivorous Circus, that took Bo Diddley’s “Mona” to extremes that even Quicksilver might have baulked at. And into the 1990s, reborn with both the rejuvenated Deviants and a solo career as a performance art chaos-maker, he did it all again, even more loudly.
But Farren did not shout to be heard. He shouted because he understood that deafness can be a state of mind, as well as a state of being. Politicians are deaf; that goes without saying. Big business is deaf; that, too, is a given. But what about the people whose lives and welfare are being adversely affected by the decisions made by politics and business? How can they, too, be deaf?
Yet they are, and if one thread runs through everything Farren wrote and published, from his earliest days on the International Times in psychedelic 67, to the inchoate blogs that ensured his Doc40 website packed a permanent bookmark, that thread was… WAKE UP.
I counted Mick Farren as a friend; as an influence, as an inspiration. As a young teen, his were the first words I turned to when I bought the New Musical Express every week; as an aspiring journalist a few years later, his Tale of Willy’s Rats became (and remains) the one rock’n’roll book that has never left my side. Somewhere, I hope I still have the transcript of an interview/conversation that we spread over several weeks of meetings and phone calls in the 1980s, spoofing a typical Goldmine/Record Collector article about the Rats themselves, a piece of apocalyptic post-Rutles madness in which at least one of their albums was deleted before its release when the bomb squad discovered copies were wired to explode if anyone over the age of forty tried to play them. Mick himself had just passed that birthday, and had yet to forgive himself for doing so.
Mourning Mick now is not easy to do. Having moved to the US in the 1980s, he returned to England a few years ago, declaring that he didn’t want to die in America. He knew it was coming, his health was failing, and his last months were spent on an oxygen tank. The doctors even told him not to play that Borderline show, convinced that his body probably wouldn’t last the pace.
They were right, as well, and Mick knew it, too. Not many people are privileged enough to choose the manner of their own passing, but if we believe the legend and agree that Mick did, then perhaps we should be celebrating him, and mourning only our own loss. The loss of a great man, a triumphant writer, a visionary rebel and, word for words, note for note, possibly the most significant and meaningful artist to arise from the entire English underground of the late 1960s.
Because who’s going to tell us to wake up now?