N16age Riot: Thurston Moore On Stoke Newington Life
, June 5th, 2014 12:40
To mark his appearance at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, we reprint an extract from New Humanist Magazine pamphlet On Community where Thurston Moore writes of his love of and life in the London area of Stoke Newington. Thurston in Abney Park cemetery photograph by Peter Beste, excellent headline by Rory Phillips
I've lived in NYC since late 1976, just shy of 19-years-old. It was all about wanting to be in a punk rock band and hang out with the Ramones. What happened is I joined a decidedly art-school band and hung out with conceptual artists like Dan Graham and Vito Acconci. Sonic Youth was duly informed by the artistry of both worlds. We played London first in 1982 thereabouts opening for the Australian industrial-cum-dance outfit SPK (Surgical Penis Klinik) and the affected chanteuse Danielle Dax at a venue named The Venue. We were first on, battering our guitars with drumsticks, and while googly-eyed lads stared back at us in confusion the club proceeded to close the curtain on our caterwaul as we were running past our allotted 15 minutes. Last I remember we spent the night on benches in Victoria Station waiting for the morning train to Heathrow.
Our next UK venture was, thankfully, more auspicious – due to the interest and investment of Paul Smith, the label impresario at Doublevision/Mute records. He booked us at a high-profile evening of experimental music at the ICA and gathered all the important press people to, once again, google-eye us, though this time with some critical facility. From then on until the inevitable press backlash we were the young noise rock critic darlings, eventually having Iggy Pop join us for an atonal throw down of 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' at the Astoria a few years later with a beaming Paul Smith – and us delirious in creative youth exstasis.
Around '84 or '85 we joined Paul at Rough Trade to further his machinations within the indie record world, utilising the Cartel distribution network and generally getting under the skin of the old guard there with our insolent American imperiousness. I remember no names (though they were all brought glaringly back to my mind while reading Morrissey's evisceration of each and every office worker in his Autobiography) – except Richard Boon.
“Boonie” was a legend, having issued the first Buzzcocks EP on his Manchester label New Hormones, one of the first and, to this day, best punk rock blueprints. It just so happened that we were to be staying at his and Deborah Cohen's house in London, saving us all the expenditure of hotels. My recall is that we were in complete jet-lag misery on a piss-scented train to Kings Cross and then a rickety 73 bus to some North London outpost called Stoke Newington. Boonie lived on Oldfield Road, about a 10-minute walk from the Stoke Newington Town Hall stop. By the time I reached his place and sat nodding on his couch, having my first revelatory experience of English tea, I crashed hard on the guest bed with the house cat somehow situating itself completely under my belly for what must have been some new American-blooded warmth.
I wanted to be in London and traipse the streets of the Slits, Gang of Four, PiL, the Raincoats but, unlike the minuscule parameters of NYC geography, London was a sprawl the size of a small state. Determined to find action, I'd leave Stoke Newington for Camden Town or Notting Hill by hoofing it to Church Street and waiting for the 73 to get me to Kings Cross and into the city lights. Those days Church Street definitely had some rougher vibe going on as I was propositioned to purchase illicit drugs by a few unpleasant lads hanging about. I was used to this coming from the wild life of NYC but this was London and I felt an unsettling anxiety of unknown terrain.
In hindsight I wish I'd stayed close to Stoke Newington, indeed all of Hackney, and investigated its world. Only later would I discover this was where Marc Bolan lived as a teen, where first generation punkers, be it the Sex Pistols, Joy Division or The Lurkers played in local pubs, where heavy literary figures resided, where the radical Stoke Newington Eight held court (they bombed the Barclays bank on the High St, which, like flowers from refuse, sprouted what is now the Stoke Newington Bookshop), in lineage of the village's history of dissension and non-conformity, a land being psycho-geo-documented with beat vision by the writer Iain Sinclair.
The last time I kipped at Boonie's I was becoming enamored, and subsequently immersed, in the musical wonder of British free improvisation. I stumbled into a café on Church St to escape some rainfall and to my surprise there were some books and LPs in there dealing with the curiosities of this genre. Albums by Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill et al and the The Art of Improvisation by Derek Bailey. I imagine this was just below where the Vortex Jazz Café was, though at that moment I wasn't hip to that particular outpost.
At some point in the late '80s or early '90s I saw that there was a night of improvised music at the Vortex with John Stevens, Paul Rutherford, Lindsay Cooper and a host of others and I mapped out how to get to this place. It had been some years since I'd been in Stokey, now that Sonic Youth was all high and mighty and staying at the Columbia Hotel with all the other degenerate rock & roll animals.
When I finally reached this godforsaken locale I realised I had been here before a number of times in my younger days and kicked myself for not having had the foresight to hang out and witness the meetings of musical minds that had been going on under my nose, while I was high-tailing it out to second-hand record stores in central London. What a dope. I saw notices in old jazz magazines, which I had just begun collecting, of amazing Company gigs (events organized by Derek Bailey where a cavalcade of improvisers would perform in a series of duos, trios etc) happening at the Stoke Newington Town Hall. Damn. The John Stevens gig was great and I hobbled off to negotiate the night bus back to the rock hotel zone. Snore.
If I had been told then that I'd be living in Stoke Newington in 2014 I'd have been as befuddled as the lads gawking at Sonic Youth at the Venue so long ago. I first moved in to a tiny hovel on the High Street directly across from Sutton & Sons Fish & Chips (the best in London, as far as I have experienced by my American tongue). All predicated by following the woman I had fallen in love with. It was there I met the guitar player who I am currently working with in recording new songs. The High Street was definitely reminiscent of what I remembered from Stoke Newington and it took me some time to take a stroll across Church Street. I usually went as far as the Jolly Butcher's pub then back. But when I did venture along the Church St. I couldn't believe the transformation of populace. A promenade of young, well-groomed, primarily white couples almost all with prams (a fair amount with double prams) extolling the virtues of semi-luxe commerce from Whole Foods to high end gentleman's wear a la The Chap magazine. And some old school off-license joints, the lovely library, fabulous second hand record and book stores, safe and welcoming pubs, the legendary Rasa Indian restaurant. The only kind of bummer was that the Vortex had moved shop to nearby Dalston and been replaced with a Nando's.
The sirens and general street thuggery of the High Street drove us to seek solace and we really very luckily found a small place on the Church Street allowing for pleasant access to Clissold Park and the gothic cast of St. Mary's cathedral. I joke sometimes that Stokey is newly dangerous with the daily dodging of prams and the near beheadings I, as a tall man, come dangerously close to as the 73 wings by. In my mid 50s, with a modest revenue of being a working musician, I find it graciously accommodating. The feeling of being somewhat alien provides an intriguing distance and, as the proprietor of an antiquarian bookstore on Cecil Court enlightened me, London slowly reveals itself to each person, but you must be willing to spend the time in its drift.
Which is what I am up to in Stoke Newington, tipping my hat to Richard Boon, as he makes his away from god-knows-where to devil-may-care. Living in the same hood as the man who issued one of the most significant calling cards of our subculture into a history-defying and life-long aesthetic-defining matrix leads me to think that my, dare I say London years, are in the most personal and delightful sense, providential and a true affair of the heart.
This piece is an extract from the pamphlet On Community, produced by New Humanist magazine in association with the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. This year’s festival begins on Friday 6 June and features appearances from Thurston Moore, Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Martin Rowson, Suzanne Moore, Ray Davies and many more. New Humanist is a quarterly magazine of ideas, culture and science published by the Rationalist Association. Read all about the latest issue here. Thurston Moore also appears at Field Day in Victoria Park this Saturday, June 7.