Simon with friend and boombox, pre-crack cocaine in LA, 1988.
Simon Mason was a remarkable drug dealer. We first met in the mid 90s when, if you moved in certain, soon-to-be-diminishing circles, it was hard to avoid him. He wore bad hats, had good quality narcotics, seemed to know everyone and didn’t seem bothered about the money you would soon owe him. For all kinds of reasons, this was never going to last.
His rise from well connected layman (driving Bez around Glastonbury on a motorbike in 1990) to resident chemist for the Britpop aristocracy (introducing Oasis on stage in 1994) was followed by a steep and abiding fall. He has chronicled the full arc of these misadventures in, Too High, Too Far, Too Soon – a book that falls somewhere between Stephen Smith’s Addict and Danny Sugarman’s Wonderland Avenue and is perhaps the great British narco-memoir of modern times.
While the highs are already on record (a brief Google search will bring up his product inventory for Glastonbury, 1994), it's the lows and the far-from-the-spotlight moments that are the most instructive parts of his memoir. In one pitiful but warmly rendered scene from the early 2000s, he's in a caravan in a Clapton waste ground with another junkie who wakes Simon up to point out that he's on fire. Rather than go outside and deal with the situation comprehensively, Simon elects to anoint himself with the nearest fluid available – a two-litre bottle of his host’s collected urine – before returning to the more pressing errand of staying strung out. It says something about the extent of his addiction that this moment wasn't even close to being his low point, and that he would continue to explore and repeat the extremes of his predicament before finally getting clean in 2006.
These days he works on the frontlines of rehabilitation, counselling drug users who are just out of prison. “Someone threw their urine sample over me the other day,” he says. “How’s that for karma?” That he hasn’t lost his sense of humour is almost as astonishing as the fact he didn’t lose his life. I recently sat down for a chat with Simon about his career, his addiction and his book.
Preparing to smoke Tibetan opium at Glastonbury in 1990.
VICE: Understandably, the book is being marketed around the Britpop moments, but there's a lot more to it than that.
Simon Mason: It’s about addiction, about someone being dealt a bad hand, running away to the big city when you’re a kid – someone obsessed with music and, rightly or wrongly, ending up at the heart of that huge cultural thing that happened in the 90s. And then what happened not just to me. People that go into that vortex, where do they go? Does anyone care? I think they do – we’re all human beings.
In the book you persistently refer to yourself as a coward, but – addiction driven idiocy aside – some of the other stuff is quite brave, like moving to LA without a plan or any money at 17 years old.
You’re flattering me a little bit. If I’d sat there and thought about it, I probably wouldn’t have done it. It’s like the thing about drugs – and I talk to people a lot about this at work – you’ve altered your state of being before you’ve scored. You’re lying around, sick, whatever – you get ten quid, 20 quid from wherever and you feel better already. You haven’t actually put the drugs in your system, but you’ve already changed your chemistry. Something’s happened. So moving to London, seeing a sign saying, "£99 New York, one way" was the same thing. I’d changed how I was feeling – ‘I’m going to do that.’ Sit back on the plane, drink a bottle of Chivas, put my Walkman on, smoke 20 cigarettes and see what happens when I get there. That wasn’t really thought out.
There’s a huge market for books that attempt to deconstruct and promote successful behaviour and others, like yours, that do the opposite by outlining the less desirable outcomes. But a lot of the arguments that lead to both conclusions seem very similar – think independently, persist with your vision, don’t be dissuaded and so on. When you’re in a room full of junkies going about their business, there’s a lot of industry and ingenuity there – albeit for perverse ends.
It’s a reward system. Again, I say this a lot at work – if you put half the effort into sorting yourself out as you put into killing yourself, you’ll fly. Go to any phone box at whatever time of day in an area where people are using and you’ll see them stood there, arse hanging out, in a bad way. Then the BMX turns up and there’s a Lazarus-type effect. Everyone’s better already, and they’re off! Junkies can wake up skint and go to bed with 500 quid’s worth of crack in their system. That is a talent.
Simon during days of "shrooms, opium, cider, acid and speckled doves" at Glastonbury '94.
You were a very successful dealer for a while.
You just had to be in the right place at the right time – it wasn’t that difficult. People wanted something – I had it, or knew people who did. You get sucked into that and you become an appendage to the whole system. I walked into the backstage area of T in the Park with Noel Gallagher once, and the assembled music business walked right past him and up to me, which sums up the whole business quite nicely.
While New Labour has come to dominate almost every aspect of how that time is remembered, you avoid making any political or wider social connections in your account of it.
Well, my main concern for most of the book is, ‘Where am I going to get £20 from?’ I didn’t have the luxury of debating Noel Gallagher going to Downing Street as being a good or a bad thing. It’s like, ‘Six months ago I was on a tour bus with him, now I’m in Kentish Town with a needle hanging out of my arm. My priorities have changed somewhat.' I was there for a bit. Their star was in the ascendancy, mine was hurtling out of control.
You mention reading books about drugs and music when you were a kid, but you weren’t deterred?
Well, it’s not going to happen to you, is it? It wasn’t going to happen to Zammo in Grange Hill – it wasn’t going to happen to anybody – and it’s not going to happen to me. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? 'It’s not going to happen to me.'
We both read books in the 80s about the 60s, and here we are now, 20 years later, talking about your book about the 90s. What’s in there that someone could maybe read and make use of?
I don’t think there’s anything in there that’s going to make someone like me not do what I did any more than reading any of those books you mentioned. Because, "It’s not going to happen to me." I see, through work, a daily procession of people coming out of jail with drug problems. I say my piece, then I see them a month later and they’re completely fucked again.
Simon on Holloway Road, London in 1998.
By the time you’re in jail, certain options have disappeared.
Yeah. And I’ve been clear; this isn’t a moral story. I don’t have any moral judgement about drugs, but addiction is an awful, awful thing. Most people will be at Glastonbury, take drugs, have a great time and go back to work slightly dishevelled, smelling of firewood, vibed up and be OK. But a percentage of those people will not be able to do that. A couple might die, a couple might lose jobs, relationships end. And there’ll be a percentage of people who won’t be there next year for whatever reason. I guess, if you see yourself in that percentage, just be fucking careful.
People who get by without ever using drugs or falling foul of them might be forgiven for looking at your story and thinking, 'Just get on with it, loser.'
I don’t think I was a drug addict because my dad died when I was a kid. I don’t think I was a drug addict because of what happened to me at school. That stuff didn’t help. Nature versus nurture – we could be here all day. What I do know is that, eventually, I got to a point where I had to find something else other than drugs as a way of coping with life. God knows how I survived that long. I drove past the site of the caravan in Clapton – it's luxury flats now, no wasteland there any more.
The guy whose caravan it was is long dead. Another friend of mine died in that street and it cemented all that stuff. I don’t know who makes it or why, but I have. Without becoming some kind of life coach, if people read this and they’re in trouble with that sort of stuff and see that this guy was a fucking lunatic and he has – with the help of lots of other people – made it, then it’s been worthwhile.
Left to right: Simon with his mum in '06, ten days after getting clean for what he hopes will be the last time; on the job at Glastonbury in '94; going through a Sick Boy phase after rehab in '02.
I notice that neither of us went to Glastonbury this year.
Can’t afford it. I’ll tell you something else, and I’m saying it 'cos it’s true – sometimes, in the last couple of years – around about April time when you see all the festival adverts going up – I’ve sat there and thought, ‘Once more for the gipper! I could make a fortune. I’m not using – it’ll all be different this time. I’ll go back to work, I’ll find a stupid hat!’ I went to a gig the other day and someone I hadn’t seen in 15 odd years sidled up to me and went, "Si, have you got anything?" I’m like, "Excuse me? No, I don’t do that any more." He went, "You were the best, man!" I went, "Thanks. Buy me a lemonade.”
Simon Mason’s Too High, Too Far, Too Soon, published by Mainstream, is out now.
There's a free gig and book signing this Friday at Roxy Bar and Screen in London Bridge. Keep up to date with everything else at the Facebook page.
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