Book Review: Memoirs of a Geezer
The Autobiography of Jah Wobble
Music, Mayhem, Life
(Serpent’s Tail) £12.99
Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams
Jah Wobble, as he has been dubbed since Sid Vicious’ drunken slurred attempt at saying John Wardle, is one of the infamous ‘four Johns’ who met at Kingsway College of Further Education in North London in 1973. The other three were John Lydon – meeting whom Wobble describes as one of the few “Stanley/Livingstone moments” in his life – Vicious, whose own transformation from John Beverley had come courtesy of Lydon who in turn became Johnny Rotten, and John Gray.
Of the three that became defined by their nicknames, Wobble has been happiest within the skin of his, “the ‘jah’ was perfect because I was such a big reggae aficionado,” he writes, “I thought that it was perfect, it stood out, and I knew people would never forget it.” Whilst post-Sex Pistols, Lydon’s right to use the name ‘Rotten’ became part of a protracted legal battle with Malcolm McLaren, which was only resolved in Lydon’s favour in 1986, and it could be argued that it was Vicious’ submersion into the character of his nickname, of which Wobble writes, “in terms of twentieth-century iconography Sid’s cartoon-like image is right up there,” that contributed to his untimely end.
Which is not to suggest that the first 50 years of Wobble’s life covered in this book have been plain sailing, as the subtitle underscores they have been full of music, mayhem, and a life very much lived oscillating between the highest highs and lowest lows. The key formative trigger for Wobble to play bass guitar, for which he is most well known, was seeing Bob Marley & the Wailers at the highly influential gigs at the Lyceum in London in 1975, and in particular the rhythm section of Aston and Carlton Barrett. Wobble bought his first bass in 1977, but it was a telephone call early the following year that instigated his musical career when Lydon asked him to join his new band, Public Image Ltd.
He played on the first two PiL albums, First Issue and the highly innovative and continuingly inspirational Metal Box, before leaving the band in 1980 to embark on a prolific solo career which has included his bands The Invaders of the Heart and the Human Condition, the album Rising Above Bedlam which was nominated for the inaugural Mercury Music Prize in 1992, losing out to Primal Scream’s Screamadelica. Though Wobble had also played on the latter as part of an equally extensive and eclectic list of collaborations he has undertaken including Sinead O’Connor, Can, Bjork, Baaba Bal, and Brian Eno.
Over the last thirty plus years performing, recording, and writing as a bass player, singer, composer, poet, music journalist, and also through founding his own record company 30 Hertz Records, Wobble has been for better and at times for worse exposed to every facet of the music industry and Memoirs of a Geezer is as much an insider’s story of the seismic changes the industry has been through from Punk to Rave to digital downloads, as a cautionary tale as to how to keep your head above the water of its whirlpool. Which isn’t to say there haven’t been moments when the tide has engulfed him – though he’s been sober now since 1986, his alcoholism contributed to a suicide attempt and the breakdown of his first marriage.
Burnt out by the music industry and in attempt to stabilise his life in 1986 Wobble worked briefly as a cab driver and a courier before getting a job on London Underground – amusingly announcing to a packed rush hour platform at Tower Hill, “I used to be somebody, I repeat, I used to be somebody.” An allusion to the film that is both a favourite and one that he draws parallels with, On the Waterfront, and Marlon Brando’s character Terry Malloy a promising boxer who is forced to take a dive, and ends up working as a docker surrounded by corruption on all fronts. As this book illustrates Wobble has always stood his ground when faced with anyone or anything with whom he disagreed, in younger days he did not pull his punches and though in later life the punches have become metaphorical they are no less iconoclastic in Memoirs as he tells it exactly as he sees it from Punk, Sex Pistols, McLaren and his PiL band mates through a host of other music and literary figures including Richard Branson, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Iain Sinclair.
It is not only the reverberations of Wobble’s passion for the bass guitar that flow through Memoirs of a Geezer, but also London, and more specifically the East End, his birth place. Which for forty years, despite a few forays ‘up West’, was not only his home but also provided him with inspirations, challenges, and wake up calls in equal measures, and despite the dramatic changes that it has undergone since the war, which Memoirs vividly charts, a point of stability until eventually that too was irrevocably hindered and he moved to Stockport with his second wife and children. There are flashes throughout Memoirs of a Geezer of another great documenter of London and, if one likes, another dandy geezer, Julian Maclaren-Ross, and in its sense of place and reflection of both sides of the coin of Maclaren-Ross’s most well known and influential writings, Memoirs of the Forties.
Memoirs of a Geezer is an engaging and salutary tale of taking the knocks but refusing to be cowed, a reflection both on the creative processes of making music and the inherent battles in getting that music to wider audiences, and a fascinating and highly evocative cultural history, of people and places many of whom and of which have now changed beyond recognition. But part of the book’s strength is that it is written by a man whose intention is not to document the past and sit back with his pipe and slippers, but whose life has already been so full, that in order to embrace the next half century he needed to download the last, in order to give him a blank canvas, free reign, or what you will, for whatever comes next, which is certain to be just as full of music, mayhem and life.