April 14, 2019
Tom Vague goes 12 rounds with Lester Langway
One of the ultimate scenesters and a personal hero of mine, Tom Vague started writing and publishing VAGUE magazine in 1979 as a "provincial punk" in Salisbury. Like me and my first press card, he used the photocopied fanzine as a ticket backstage to meet his favourite bands---for Tom that was Adam and the Ants, Siouxie and the Banshees, the Pop Group. When not on the dole he worked in an abattoir. "If I was stopped by police and was asked, what do you do, I'd say, I kill pigs," he told me. In 1980 VAGUE became the official programme for the Ants' UK tour. The band sold 10,000 copies on their merch stand. After that, Tom mercifully dropped music from the mag (along with the juvenile, Smash Hits-y writing style), upped the production values and turned VAGUE into a much more potent psychotropical drug for the blank generation. Going over VAGUE back issues from 79 to 92---now rare collectors' items---I can't help but be dazzled by the spectacular upscaling of its ambitions, not just from photocopy to glossy, but from adolescent "Antzine" to a full-on "Psychic Terrorism Annual." The nearest thing to cover stars were cult films like Apocalypse, Now!, novelists Ballard and Gibson, the Baader-Meinhof gang, and Tom's other great love affair after Adam and Siouxie---those pop-stars of radical theory, the Situationist International.
I met Tom in a Portobello pub garden on a bright March afternoon. Wearing a smart Marks & Spencer coat over tracksuit bottoms, he ordered his usual pint of the cheapest beer on tap and didn't object when I offered to pay for it. He told me this was going to be a nightmare to transcribe, and I believed him. He talks in snippets and snaggles, rarely finishing a sentence. "I don't consider myself a writer," he said when I came back out with his ale. "That's me feeling sorry for myself."
Vague is one of the most prolific name-droppers I've ever met.
I asked him to elaborate, but he muttered something about Pete Frame and his rock family trees, the bands the Slits, the Raincoats and the Tesco Bombers. "I might be made out as a Situationist or psychogeographer, but everything goes back to pop trivia with me."
When I came back from the bar again, he was sneaking a peak at my notepad where I'd written the name of the pub. "It's the Earl of Lonsdale," he said. "Not the Duke. You know, the boxing guy."
His eyes are sometimes bulging, often squinting. He jabs away at his trusted topic like a journeyman boxer.
I asked whether, in hindsight, he thinks punk ever had much in common with radical left politics of the Situationists, or if it was just a pseudo-intellectual appropriation by music industry rats like Malcolm McLaren, which fanboy suckers like him and Greil Marcus got taken in by.
"When the Pistols came out, it was DIY, start your own band, start a fanzine, a small business. That can be seen as pretty similar to Thatcherism."
"What do you think?"
"You could say that."
We'd been talking for over an hour by this point and he was still being surprisingly evasive and non-committal. "But what do you think, Tom?"
"Now a few decades have passed, it seems like part of the counterculture. It was part of the golden age."
"Would you like to be a newspaper columnist like Julie Burchill or Tony Parsons?"
"I don't have the journalistic ability."
"You do have journalistic ability."
He slurped his pint and gave me an embarrassed look. "Please!"
Vague ducking a diving, I nudged the Dictaphone across the table.
"I have a moral thing that's stopping me."
"What is it?"
"I'm Tom Vague. I'm not one thing or the other."
Taking wild swings now. Vague covering up. "Why?"
"Burchill said she's a fan of Margaret Thatcher. I can't agree with that."
"I just hated Margaret Thatcher."
"She considers punk a popular thing and not avant-garde. VAGUE was more post-punk. Joy Division and the Pop Group..."
It was heading for a stalemate by namedrop, so I banged my head against the table three times, knocked myself into a daze, staggered over to the bar. "Barmaid! Two pints of whatever's cheap," I slurred. She was from Eastern Europe. I asked her name. "Thanks, Svetchlna," I smiled.
When I sat back down, Tom was looking at me with his long, mournful face, slightly welted and bruised, still nursing his second drink. "I'm having a mid-to-late-life crisis," he said. "I don't really have anything to say about punk anymore."
A few nights before, I was at a party where Stewart Home, god knows why, was giving the introduction to a useless Welsh poet. As is Home's custom nowadays, he gave the address standing on his head. The only way I manage to tolerate this kind of thing is to get blind drunk, and this time was no exception. I lost several friends that night. I also happened to bring a copy of the "Televisionaries" issue of VAGUE out with me. I either passed out or got kicked out. Either way, I lost it. I had a look on eBay afterwards, and couldn't find one for less than forty quid. I love that magazine, and I wanted it back. After spending the next hungover day rushing between London's only known VAGUE stockists, Housmans on Caledonian Road and the Freedom bookshop in a piss-soaked Whitechapel alleyway, I discovered they were all deVAGUEd.
"Are you up for doing some photos?" I asked.
"Yeah man, why not. Where do you want to...?"
"Can I get a shot of you in front of the VAGUE archive?"
"They're all at my place."
"I could go and get them."
"The whole archive? I don't think you could carry them all."
Tom looked around, checked his phone. I downed my pint and got the camera out, played with the zoom. "The light's no good in here, and I don't think we could do it on the street."
"So you want to come back to mine then?"
Of course I did. At 4pm were six rounds in, walking down Portobello Road with its antique creeps, ersatz rock & roll merch, Sex Pistols union flags.
Tom's lived in the same Ladbroke Grove housing co-operative for the last twenty years, on a pedestrianised precinct between Portobello Road and Tavistock Gardens, scene of the 1990s "bongo wars" between the crusties and local residents. "I felt bad about making noise complaints because I was a punk rocker who made noise in my early days." He takes a room on the first floor, at the front of the pastel-coloured terrace building, which he shares with housemates, white dreadlocks types ranging from their twenties to their fifties. The room's packed with Tom's archive, carefully stacked in dense blocks under the table in the middle of the room.
The holy grail!
He offered me a chair and sat at his desk with Facebook open, rolling a joint while I looked at stapled computer printout of a presentation he gave at the local library, showing how the 1957 Rent Act dovetailed with pop culture---classic Tom Vague material in a softer format. Local history projects like this---"psychogeography" if you've got a master's degree---are funded by a friendly Labour councillor, who pays him an income barely above Jobseekers' Allowance.
I was curious to know how a Situationist justifies taking government money from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. "I don't know if I do," he said.
We were listening to Wire's Pink Flag on YouTube. He was hogging the joint and sipping Red Stripe cans slowly, replying to messages. I wondered if he's still doing anything transgressive. "Living like this still, or squatting, or dripping out. Or just being anti-work. I'm workshy."
"Can I have some of the joint please, Tom?"
"Yeah, man, here you go."
"You talk a lot about the past. But do you think there's anything to live for in the present?"
Between Wire tracks, Tom looked up at the walls, shelves of punk cassettes and fanzines, books on Situationist theory, punk and television, the century of analogue. "Well, just my own personal revolution. I'm carrying on with that."
I leaned back in the office chair, put my feet on Tom Vague's desk and inhaled the joint. "What's your own personal revolution?"
"Not working nine to five, doing what you want to do."
I gave him the yeah, really? look.
"I have succeeded, but the breakdown I had, if I wasn't on the Venlafaxine..."
"What was the breakdown?"
"Not sleeping. Anxiety, depression. Not being able to write was the main one. Struggling to answer questions! Or maybe thinking that I have conformed, I am just working for the council, really. All the various factors. Just being old and past it and never really doing much in the first place."
It was 9pm and Tom probably had archival research to be doing, or a local campaign to save the local library to co-ordinate. I didn't know what to say by means of farewell, other than I liked his work very much, particularly the later editions of VAGUE, which I was very sad to have had stolen from me by a gang on Rye Lane the other week. "Oh man, that sucks. Which editions?" His Personal Vagueness asked as I was putting my bag over my shoulder.
He went and fetched a slab of psychic terror from the archive, gave them to me. Not bad at all, I thought to myself. A knockout.
Download Issue 1: https://morbidbooks.b-cdn.net/a-void-issue-1.pdf