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Months Before He Died, I Spent One Drunk Night Interviewing Tony Wilson

It was all going so well until he got mugged, my shoe filled with blood, and I threw up on him.
August 28, 2014, 11:10am

Tony Wilson died seven years ago this month. The date—August 10—came and went like a lost fart. No picture galleries, no “Wilson in his own words” obits cribbed from BrainyQuotes, and no first person pieces written by journalists still dining out on their 24 hours with Wilson at Chateau Marmont.

Rarely missing a window for confession (hi, Catholic!) I feel the time is ripe to dine out on mine. Why? Because in the eight years since I lied about being a journalist in order to meet Tony Wilson, this story has been pivotal in securing jobs, friendships and even relationships, both long-lasting and fleeting. In many ways, I owe my life to a man played by Steve Coogan.

I first realized this story’s power when I was on a date last year. It was going OK, but I was getting tired and none of my post-Soviet Russian cinema references were landing properly. While the guy I was with was in the bathroom, I quickly BBM'd my friend for a pep talk: "Just tell him the Tony Wilson story and be done with it”. I did as he said and boom—total, sexual key change.

It has everything you’d want from a date story: drugs, theft, vomit, a bit of blood. But I guess the main reason it has such an impact is that not only is Wilson now dead, but he also died pretty soon after we met. Not long after we had met, he outed his illness in a sort of two-part love letter to the NHS in the Manchester Evening News, explaining that his right kidney was "completely consumed" with cancer. Couple that with our collective fascination with the man and mythologizing of that whole era and, well, I was sitting on a winner.

Of course there’s nothing like over-hyping a story to completely ruin its impact, so without further ado, here’s a rough approximation of what happened sometime in 2006-ish.

Firstly, if you're not familiar with his background, you need to know what sort of person we're dealing with: Tony Wilson, one of the co-founders of Joy Division and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's label Factory Records, was essentially a walking, talking, concept album of a man; a bright Catholic boy from Salford who went to Cambridge, worked in television and music, made various, dubious life and career decisions, and left behind a mixed legacy. There was a time when 90 percent of music journalists had had some sort of run in with him. Of course now everyone gushes endlessly about him. But I think my rejection letter from the Big Issue summed up the consensus at the time:

“Thank you Morwenna for your story but to be honest, I am sick to the teeth of Tony Fucking Wilson so it’s a no from me and I suspect most people you try.”

Wilson had a knack for mishandling press and money, alienating people and getting g'd up on celebrity but also, it transpired, a good ear for talent. Without Wilson most British indie rock bands probably wouldn't exist. I haven't interviewed anyone who doesn’t credit their entire success to a combination of car-journey cassettes and Joy Division.

At the time of our meeting, I was in Turin, Italy, with friends, having a break from filing wills in the basement office where I worked. We’d just been to this free festival in a park. New Order were headlining, and we were drinking tequila and taking mushrooms, back when they were legal.

After the festival we had gone to a warehouse by the river after hearing that Wilson and Shaun Ryder were DJing. It was pretty secret because the space was half empty, but the Madchester vibe was strong: Durutti Column, 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald, the works. That whole scene is pretty big in Italy because of the hooks: Depeche Mode inspire whole nights.

The first thing I noticed about Wilson was how sweaty he was. He was setting up the decks on a balcony in a lavender shirt that had turned ombre. To be fair to him, it was August, and Turin’s heat is like a wall. I found a staircase at the back of the club which led to the booth. At the top of the staircase were two Mancunians in black vests. They were fucking huge and fairly blase towards gender. I saw Wilson sitting down, reading his phone, his glasses at the end of his nose. He was wearing chinos and sandals and black nail varnish on his tootsies. I waved. He waved back. The two men weren't up for this and pushed me back off the step, making me catch my toenail and tearing a bit off. They asked me to fuck off, but Wilson batted them away and leaned over the balcony. My foot was starting to bleed pretty badly, but I managed to ignore it, instead babbling something about being a journalist covering the festival for a magazine. Back to back lies. Wilson said fine, told me to wait outside and said that he’d be out at 1.30 AM. I did as he said, and out he came.

We sat down on the embankment by the riverside strip of clubs opposite the hills, our feet dangling over the river Po. To our left was the bit where they filmed The Italian Job; in front of us was Ibrahimovic’s villa.

I had a crappy Nokia phone, but it had a recording fucntion on it so I switched it on. The first thing I asked was why New Order had played mostly Joy Division songs. It was a bad start: “For fuck’s sake they loved Ian. Why the fuck not? Fuck me [there were a lot of fucks]—if I had my way, they’d play all fucking Joy Division songs”. He was pretty cross so I apologized. Wilson shrugged and pulled out a massive bag of weed from his bag and started rolling a joint. “This is what we need. Look we all loved Ian, then he had to go and fucking do that and well, I think it’s right they they’ve carried on the legacy. You smoke?”

Well, I did now. By this time Factory Records, Wilson’s label, had loped exhaustedly into its latest and final incarnation: F4.

His latest signing was a group called RAW-T (Recognise and Witness Talent, their name) made up of a group of teenagers from Moss Side in Manchester, not far from the Russell club where Wilson had spent the 70s organizing guerilla gigs for Joy Division.

He had found the kids in RAW-T after turning up at a social club where they were battling. He later returned with some equipment and watch them “spit rhymes”. “I knew they had something, so I knew I had to do it now,” he said.

Wilson was always trying to corner a zeitgeist and had now, naturally, focused his sights on hip-hop. “We’ve always had faith in Mancunian black artists and always tried to work with them," he said. In the 1980s, he and Joy Division's manager Rob Gretton had found Marcel King trying to steal a car. “This kid had appeared on Top of the Pops when he was 13 in a band called Sweet Sensation, the first black British band on Top of the Pops… and then ten years later he was nicking cars.” Ever benevolent they took him in and recorded a song in the 80s called "Reach For Love," which was produced by New Order frontman Bernard Sumner. “It bombed—just one of those Bernard moments of genius that no one knows about.”

Wilson had a history of banking way too much on artists, never learning, and (no offense) repeating the same mistakes like a sad rat in a conditioning chamber. Take The Happy Mondays: In the early 90s, Wilson sent them to Eddy Grant’s house in Barbados to record their fourth album, Yes Please! Ryder and co. were off the smack. But unbeknown to Wilson, Ryder had apparently broken his case of methadone at the airport, "and then it turns out the island was knee-deep in a fucking crack cocaine problem. We had no idea. We were waiting for something, anything. But it was radio silence from Shaun." The album ended up bankrupting Factory “and yeah, there we were standing in this warehouse with 9,000 copies of an album that we had just pressed, watching it rot on a pallet."

Fast forward to 2006 and here he was again, battling to promote another lost album. “We pressed 10,000 copies of Raw-T’s debut album and sold a few hundred. I took it to America, and it was like I had just presented them with a dog turd. But I’m not giving up.”

I was starting to feel pretty wrecked. My friend Peeter was taking photographs of Wilson with my SLR, and even he kept falling over. “Is he all right?” Wilson asked. “He’s fine, this is how he works,” I said, and we carried on talking, Wilson continuing to drawing slowly on his spliff, his shit completely together.

By now, Wilson was starting to do make his famous, aggy blanket generalizations: "All drugs are dangerous and brilliant," he said, rolling the joint. “At the Hacienda, the drugs were fucking everywhere. Everyone was off their heads.” He also liked to piss people off wherever possible: “Italians don’t understand rock music,” he shouted loudly, as we sat outside this Italian rock club. People were staring. “Look I used to get people running up to me telling me I was a wanker. I didn’t mind. Maybe I was. But I knew what I liked, and I produced some great music.”

I asked him why the sudden change. "People are going to get bored of all these second hand guitar bands. The Somethings. The Whatsits. I tried it. It’s getting tired, and I think it’s going to turn. Thirteen years—that's what happens, that’s the cycle. British hip-hop used to be too wea,k but now it’s too real. But maybe they’ll want something a bit more real." I mentioned Lewis Parker, and he shrugged and wrote down his name.

“Look, we can’t have everything. Black Americans know how to make black music because they have a way with language, and they know how to use a white man’s chorus,” he said. “Mark my words, Kanye West will be doing it soon.” I didn’t know much about Kanye West at the time, but this wasn’t long before “Diamonds” came out. The man, it transpired, was basically Jesus. Then I asked him how he felt about Steve Coogan.

“Yeah, I saw the film. Course. I was part of it. Did I like it? It's entertaining, but fuck me—Coogan?”

I tried to pacify him, suggesting his character and success were enough to inspire Michael Winterbottom to turn his life into a film. Casting Coogan was a big deal: “That bit at the end where I’m talking to the sky? Fucking hell. Look, I wanted the film to be about Ian, not me. I blame it for how people feel about me. I come across like a total wanker. A prat. I just wish Paddy Considine had played me, not Steve. Paddy is the best actor in the world right now.”

I was starting to zone out, but Wilson was already rolling another joint. Then his phone rang. That’s when we all noticed the kid sitting next to us. The kid grabbed Wilson’s bag. It was a shitty black record bag, but it contained his wallet and the massive bag of weed. There was a struggle, and the kid took off with some of its contents. He must have been about nine and wearing this dirty soccer jersey. The whole thing happened pretty quickly, and, to be honest, I don't really remember it because I had smoked too much and was starting to get the sweats. Peeter, still taking photos and still falling over, tried to run after the kid, but this kid was nimble. He smelled of mint. I remember that fresh, herby smell as I hit the ground.

I came to, and Wilson was just looking at me, smiling. I sat back up. “You OK sweetheart?” I shook my head “Not used to this are you? You'll be OK. This bit is easy.” He gave me some water from his bottle while I watched him finish the joint. My foot was still bleeding. I clocked the blood and was promptly sick all over his bag and the strap of the SLR. Then my battery died.

The adorable 9-year-old that mugged Tony Wilson

I came home and transcribed the interview pretty badly. No one wanted it, so I left him on a USB stick in my drawer, before deciding that I would become A Music Journalist. I think it was probably one of the last interviews he did because he died a year later. I don't know when Wilson was diagnosed, but I often wonder if he knew he was ill and whether the massive bag of weed had another purpose. Wilson probably knew he was going to die because, as he would later tell the press, he was struggling to procure the drug Sutent, which would probably save him but which could cost the NHS £3,000 every six weeks.

I lasted a couple of years writing about music before doing other stuff. But whenever anyone asks me why I decided to do it for a living, in job interviews or whatever, this story comes out. Maybe it smacks of some latent tenacity, maybe it's impressive I knew who Tony Wilson was when I was younger—fuck knows—but it's always sealed the deal.

The sad truth is I don't think anyone else would have waved back at me on that balcony, let alone come over. It's testament to the man: what he lacked in tact he made up for in generosity, creative or otherwise.

I’m still pretty rubbish at flirting with boys. That's never improved. But if you do hear me tell this story, chances are I am trying to get off with you. And I think it's what Tony would have wanted.

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