The late Mick Farren was a ‘60s art-school kid who became one of British counterculture’s prime movers. He fronted rock band The Deviants, led the UK contingent of the White Panther movement, publishing their newsletter, before becoming editor of International Times. He later edited the ‘Thrills’ section of the NME and throughout his life penned a mighty 23 novels and 11 works of non-fiction. Here, Pennie Quinton recalls meeting a still feisty Farren during the last months of his life, and shares a series of photographs taken at his Brighton home.
On a chilly Sunday last April, I headed o to Brighton to photograph Mick Farren hooking up on Skype and choosing his ‘Traffic Island Discs’ for Dean Stalham’s Art Saves Lives radio show on Resonance FM. Mick and I had a great chat amid the chaos of community radio, and I promised to meet him again soon. Sadly, on July 27 2013, while performing with the latest manifestation of his band, The Deviants, at London’s Borderline Club, he collapsed on stage and died.
When we arrive at his apartment for the Resonance interview we drank foul-tasting instant coffee, replete with floating cat hairs, and I perched on a leather sofa gazing opened- mouthed at his object and book-strewn private world. It was slightly shocking to note Mick’s necessity for oxygen, hits from which he’d take after talking for a while via a mask connected to a tank. It felt a little bit Blue Velvet, but Mick seemed sanguine about it and, as the technical hitches spilled out around us and radio techies screamed, he sat calmly, not getting involved, breathing in his oxygen.
My eyelids were swelling, reducing my eyes to puffy slits due to an allergic reaction brought on by Mick’s archetypal Bond villain white cat (not very helpful for a photographer), but, touchingly, Mick pulled away his oxygen mask and handed me a bottle of codeine cough medicine, which slowed my breathing and made the histamine spikes in my eyes and lungs subside after a few long swigs.
Things were still not working properly on the radio front, so Mick and I shared stories: he asked, about my life as a photographer, specifically about taking pictures in conflict situations. I began toying with a flick-knife on the coffee table next to an Elvis ashtray, unable to release the catch; Mick flicked it open for me while we discussed a clipping on his wall of the Spanish Civil War fighter Marina Ginestà, 17, anti-fascist, taken on the roof of the Hotel Colon in Barcelona. “She’s still alive you know”, I told Mick, (she died in January this year). Mick was delighted she was still going strong and I suppose this confirmed for him his belief in what he referred to as the “children’s crusade” and the passing on of the countercultural baton.
When interviewed in 2011 by Paul Pieroni for an exhibition at Space Studios of Farren’s book Watch Out Kids, Mick went into great detail about bequeathing oppositional thinking to the next generation. He said that after he left St. Martins School of Art in 1965, he “spent the rest of his life avoiding getting a job”. This in itself sounded liberating, especially when seen through the prism of welfare demonization that is so prevalent in mainstream culture in 2014.
I moved around Mick ‘s apartment, snapping away, examining his possessions. It was like being in Prospero’s cave observing the fetishes – his many books, the magic spells documenting the counterculture, his leather jacket, the history of which was the subject of a Farren book ( The Black Leather Jacket), and photographs of various arrests while on demonstrations.
Mick wheezed his way through the live radio show, choosing mainly Elvis tracks, clutching the telephone determinedly. When it was over, he handed me a present —his latest book, Road Movie, (published in 2012 in an edition of 500) and then I headed off , back to the mainstream.
When I got home, I sent Mick the photographs I’d taken. He wrote back: “Great photos! Some of me are nice… some very flattering, but I especially like those of objects and the cat. I really hope we do meet again. If you’re down on the south coast just drop by and I’ll teach you the proper usage of the flick-knife…”
Michael Anthony Farren, writer, editor and singer, was born on September 3, 1943 and died aged 69. Until I strode into his flat, I was ignorant of Mick’s legacy. His idea of handing down countercultural ideas to the next generation, his “children’s crusade”, feels more necessary than ever as we suffer the barrages of corporate excess and repression with apparently little resistance.
R.I.P (Riot in Parties) Mick, here’s to you, living the meaningful and good life, in the Aristotelian sense, leaving us a lot to enjoy, rake over and learn from, passing on the baton – the metaphorical flick-knife with which to shred the complacency of the mainstream. As the man said, “Watch out kids, they’re after you!”
The following quotes are taken from an interview between Mick Farren and curator Paul Pieroni on the occasion of the Watch Out Kids exhibition at Space Studios in 2011.
MF ON THE COUNTERCULTURE AND WORKING AT THE INTERNATIONAL TIMES
Every now and then from the top of a number 31 bus you’d see someone in a a pair of wellies sprayed silver and think: “I wonder what he does”, little strange things in the periphery of your vision, little strange things kept happening.
We thought we could take over the world but we did not realise the world was a lot harder than that, by 1967 we had to take life a lot more seriously. e moment we realised that there wasn’t going to be a “children’s crusade” and the whole of the world wasn’t going to tune in, turn on, drop out, there wasn’t going to be no magical complete LSD revolutionary society and it was going to be a much harder political slog than Timothy Leary had ever imagined. The next problem that had to be solved was how to actually support, maintain and keep rolling with a counterculture, with dissent, with a media of dissent, just to hold it together in the same way as holding together an underground Samizdat movement in the Soviet Union must have been. Damned hard work, those crazy kids: The White Rose society in the middle of Nazi Germany started putting out leaflets saying Hitler was bad, and were executed for their trouble…
It was really, how do you keep a counterculture rolling? Every two weeks we put out a newspaper; when they were ready they put out Oz, riot cops came around, the trials… Every year the Beano and the Dandy put out their annual, Watch Out Kids was the underground’s press annual… I got to condense down all the polemics I’d done in the papers over the years into one volume and try to make as much sense out of it as possible and hopefully pass something along that would carry the momentum forward– momentum that gave us Hawkwind and later Motörhead, it was the kind of momentum that laid the foundations for Joe Strummer. Hoping we could provoke what ever the next children’s crusade was going to be the fact that it turned out to be e Clash and the Sex Pistols. Yay, great!
I saw a picture of Sid Vicious reading Mad Magazine, which was part of our tradition. Ed [Barker, Farren’s cartoonist accomplice through most of the 1970s,and a sometime co-defendant) and I were carrying on that left wing, New York Jewish tradition which we were borrowing and making our own, because that’s what they’d given us. Neither Ed nor I had much time for beans and bells and looking for the white light through Dr Tim; we were somewhat cynical and alcoholic to go along with a lot of that.
To provide a sensible forum where one could discuss anarcho-syndicalism, there are pieces of history and pieces of a future that should dovetail and should match… and you can learn form the early years of the Spanish Civil War or we could learn from the early days of Victorian trade union movements, we could learn from Woody Guthrie. It’s all part and parcel of the same thing.
MF ON ‘WATCH OUT KIDS’ A BOOK CO-PRODUCED WITH HIS FRIEND AND COLLABORATOR ON THE INTERNATIONAL TIMES CARTOONIST EDWARD BARKER. (1950-1997).
Watch Out Kids was a warning put out when things were getting rough, when the streets of Ladbroke Grove were awash with heroin, you could not walk down the street without getting stopped and frisked. [ There was ] the first miners’ strike, the three-day week… [and] Margaret Thatcher was taking away the kids’ [school] milk. We knew the hard times were coming, we did not know how that would pan out; it was clear that what had been established between the Roosevelt New Deal in America and the 1945 welfare state a er World War II here, there was a de nite move, coming with the Conservatives, to dismantle a lot of what had been achieved, and a lot of what we felt that we’d achieved was also being dismantled simply by bad drugs, lack of money, exhaustion…
By the time Ed and I got around to doing Watch Out Kids, we were tired men. We’d been putting out a newspaper for two years straight, and putting out International Times generally meant that every other Tuesday we would take a massive amount of amphetamine, work for about 70 hours, and at the end of it the shit would go off to the printers and there would be a newspaper. The book was really a salutatory warning of what was coming next. I’ve always viewed the counterculture as a relay race. The baton gets passed to, essentially, the youngest and the fittest. In 1977, I went to live in New York; I fancied a level playing field. I didn’t want to turn into a BBC clown like George Melly. It’s that same bohemian thread that goes back to the Pre-Raphaelites, Jim Morrison and Che Guevara. I guess you could walk down the street and find them all on t-shirts.