I was in Geneva a few weeks ago and hungry for lowlife. Anyone who knows the city will understand why. I sniffed the air and followed my nose to a barrio near the central station. When a large African woman with a painted face and a too-short skirt crooked a finger at me I knew I was in what passes for a tenderloin in the shadow of Mont Blanc.
Time was I'd have sauntered into the least frightening of the bars, taken my place next to a tiny Eastern European girl with a sqewiff wig and huge red shiny boots and proceeded to drink myself nonchalant. But I can't do that anymore. My lowlife days are over, baby.
So, after a kebab - the most dangerous thing on offer to a sober moi - I headed back to my hotel on the shore of the lake. Still in the mood for lowlife, I browsed Kindle and came across Mishka Shubaly.
He's the author of a couple of phenomenally successful Kindle singles (Shipwrecked, Beat the Devil) and has just published I Swear I'll Make It Up to You: A Life on the Low Road . Shubaly was a hardworking alcoholic drug-monkey who found redemption in running. Not taking anything away from him but, after inhaling the Kindles and starting on I Swear... I thought that's enough of you, pal and turned in for the night.
(Full disclosure: I was saved by yoga and was probably just as boring when I waxed spiwichewal about downward dogging as Shubaly when he bangs on about ultramarathons.)
Shubaly's not a bad writer but reading him I was reminded of Gram Parsons's immortal: 'There's nothing new that can be said about dirt.' Gram got it right. So why can't some of us get enough of lowlife?
Rooted in bohemia
Lowlife is rooted in the bohemian, anti-capitalist notion that to be outside of society is where it's at, man. There's a line of flamboyant refusal that stretches from the Flaneurs through the Beats to the Punks (anyone for Richard Hell?). It goes hand in hand with the systematic derangement of the senses, from absinthe to Carbona.
Today, when anything remotely subversive that pops its head up above the perversion parapet is snorted up by social media, there is no revolting into style. Or transgression, for that matter. Where do you go from Genesis P Orridge? All a poor boy - and they're usually boys - has left is massive substance abuse (isn't that such a coy term?).
Which, when we're being fisted into submission by bigmouth capitalism, crypto-fascist toadbloat politics and extremist lunacy, kind of renders itself obselete. Unless you think choosing your own poison is better than shotgunning greenhouse gas or being blown up by some disaffected little monster who can't even grow a beard properly because you're in the wrong country at the wrong time. And you chose the wrong illusion to believe in.
(There's probably more real evil in Geneva than there ever was in any Alphabet City hardcore club.)
But where blandness covers that part of the earth on which it's temporarily safe to stroll, or you're born into a certain degree of comfort, there is a certain appeal to lowlife.
For whatever reason - having curly hair, not being picked for the football team, a potentially fatal degree of self-absorbtion - it wasn't difficult for me to fall in love with the notion of lowlife. But I was never that good at it. At the height of my descent one night, I found myself with a new set of cakefiend street friends. After a few rounds of what you might imagine, a zombie with sugared nostrils took me aside and said 'You're too nice for this. Go home.'
Off into the night I shuffled.
And that's the thing. Lowlife writers are usually really rather nice people who just had the bad luck to have been born with a skin too few, as the Irish say. The Holy Trinity for them is most often Burroughs, Kerouac and Bukowski. All men who in their own way were actually oddly decent and polite, they just happened to be addicts and smart myth-cultivators. OK, Kerouac wasn't. His myth ate him.
After reading Shubaly, I was reminded that the Holy Trinity never apologised and certainly never took up ultramarathon running. Thank something or other.
A shot of redemption
Burroughs was on methadone until the end of his life. Bukowski only stopped drinking when cancer got him. Kerouac, of course, didn't make it. They were never redeemed. Shubaly writes about redemption - fair enough, yoga saved me- and I'd suggest this is why his books are so popular.
Really, they're the K-hole, black t-shirt, crappy tatt version of those feel-good stories by people who swim oceans using the only part of their body that still works - for argument's sake, their left ear or right little toe.
(There's a trend forecasting group in New York called K-hole. Says it all really.)
But redemption is really a cop-out. And, for me, it's always the most boring bit. Whenever I start to read a lowlife book I think: I did that, I did more of that, I wish I'd done more of that, you can't do that! By the time the wobbly narrator is saved I've lost interest.
When I quit everything I bored myself to tears. I turned into Conan the Librarian. Yoga got me out of my skull without poisoning me but it didn't make me fun to be around.
And then there's the age of the lowlifer. Shubaly doesn't say how old he is on his website, where you can buy his music and t-shirts as well as the books - quelle surpreez - but I guess he's around 40. Which means he's got a long life of being sober and trying to find something else to write about ahead of him.
I was talking about Shubaly with a friend of mine last night who's also partial to a bit of lowlife. "It's all very well and good, " I said, "but there's nothing cool about being a 55-year-old fuck-up."
"Or a 69-year-old one," he said.
So far he and I have survived the ravages of, ahem, substance abuse. He's still helping out in the busy season but I've given up everything and am now growing up by accident. The point is that an old lowlifer is about as romantic as a used syringe. You've got to be closer to good-looking than corpse.
Look at Chet Baker, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke or Mason Hoffenberg. They were addicts pretty much until the end. And their addictions hamstrung them for life.
It's also kind of tacky to still be trading on your reputation as a hellraiser when you're clearly fit as a flea. Take Keith Richards - please. In every interview you ever see, read or listen to with the beady-eyed old gurgler he makes some sort of allusion to his wicked past. It's often so crass it even embarrasses him ("I'm glad to be here. I'm glad to be anywhere." F*ck off!) But before the Stones are allowed near a stage their insurers insist they submit to the most rigorous of medicals. So, while he's merchandising debauchery in one-minute vids, Keith is probably as squeaky-clean as Justin Beiber.
The truth is lowlifing hurts and it's as boring as the worst job you can think of. I've got some good war stories but I mostly look back on my years of learning to drown, of turning every pore in my body into a mouth, as a colossal waste of time.
I have to say, though, that I still have a soft spot for the ones who didn't make it, like Keith's drug buddy Gram. It's utterly stupid, or plain bad luck, to kill yourself with drink and/or drugs. But beautiful losers have their own integrity. Even if, again like Gram, they were arseholes.