The first time I met Mick Farren — who died in London over the weekend at age 69, after collapsing during a performance by his band the Deviants — was in his apartment in West Hollywood. This was during the 1990s, and we were both working for the Los Angeles Reader, the late lamented alt weekly where I was book editor and he was a columnist.
The Reader was a great place to work; the pay was virtually non-existent, but you could write whatever you wanted, which was the main reason Farren had come on board. His column, “Panic in the Year Zero,” offered a signature mix of radical politics, pop culture ephemera, conspiracy theory and countercultural wisdom, all filtered through the frenetic electricity of his voice.
I knew a little bit about Mick before I met him. I knew that the Deviants had played at Hyde Park with the Rolling Stones, and that he had disrupted the David Frost Show, helping take over the studio during a 1970 taping. I knew that he’d written a legendary column for Trouser Press, as well as dozens of books: science fiction, cultural commentary, dissections of the Elvis cult. I knew that he’d given Chrissie Hynde an early gig as a backup singer on his 1978 album “Vampires Stole My Lunch Money.” But most of all, I knew that he was the real deal, a kind of spiritual big brother to a lot of us at the Reader, a generation younger and desperate to maintain our authenticity.
Mick offered himself as a role model, without ever quite realizing (I think) that this is what he was. He’d known everybody: That first night in his apartment, I noticed some old Kodak Instamatic photos, the kind with the date, June 1967, stamped on the border, taped up in his kitchen; when I looked closer, I saw that they were candids of Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull at the beach.
But Mick wasn’t interested in the past, at least not for its own sake; he was more concerned with the future, with where we were going, rather than where we had been. He could be a mess — drinking too much, often to the point of becoming insensate, constantly smoking cigarettes and weed.
He worked all the time, though, performing and recording with the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, writing a suite of novels about the vampire Victor Renquist and a memoir, “Give the Anarchist a Cigarette,” which recalled his time in the British underground with humor and fire. When I asked him once how he managed to be so productive, he didn’t understand what I meant. “You think too much,” he told me, when I elaborated that writing could be a slow and difficult process. “Don’t think, just write.”
Mick was a terrific storyteller; he told me the best Keith Richards anecdote I’ve ever heard (which is saying something, although I suspect it’s apocryphal). Here it is: Back in the 1970s, a journalist went to interview the Rolling Stones guitarist. As they talked, Richards broke out his current powder of choice and laid out two lines, one as thick as a finger, the other as thin as a hair. “That one’s for you,” he told his visitor, pointing at the smaller line. The journalist balked. “I want a big one, just like you,” he argued. Richards looked at him, his face a world-weary deadpan. “But you’re not me,” he said.
The same, of course, might be said of Mick, who was a true original and a true believer, all the way to the end. I’d say it was fitting that he should die on stage except that he should not have died so young. But Mick was self-destructive and he never let up, which was part of his problem and part of his charm. As he told the LA Weekly in 2001: “I’m a lousy singer ... but an excellent rock star.”