Wednesday 20 March 2024

A Dysfunctional Success


In the end there was nothing scary about cataract surgery but it was a big inconvenience. I put it off for years - never had time, I always had a record to make or a tour to do. Eventually I capitulated, booked myself in for the 21st December at an eye clinic in Albany. They do one eye at a time with a few days in between. In my case a few days turned into two weeks because Christmas and the New Year got in the way. I spent the holidays with very lopsided vision. I couldn’t see a thing through the operated eye for a couple of days, just extreme brightness.

By Christmas Day the new eye was coming into focus - my distance vision was perfect but I couldn’t read and the old prescription in my glasses was useless. I bought a pair of reading glasses that caused much hilarity - they made me look like a very earnest German person. They seemed to come with their own built in personality that only went away when I forgot I was wearing them.

I was amazed by the clarity - it was quite a revelation - I thought next door had painted their house a lighter, brighter colour. Through one eye anyway. Viewed through the other eye the world looked as though it had had gravy spilled over it.

I was actually looking forward to the second operation - when they did the first one I couldn’t feel a thing, staring into a bright white light, conscious but very pleasantly sedated, and seeing the most cosmic stuff going on as they broke up the defunct lens with a laser, removed it, and installed a new man-made one. It was like the end sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey - not quite on the same cinematic scale , more miniaturised and circular but twice as bright, with the most fantastically pure and luminescent colours.

You check in and sit waiting in a large room full of rows of chairs, each containing a doddery old person, because cataracts is a condition that affect the old and doddery. Anxiety runs high, but everything’s going to be okay. Each patient comes with a designated official person who will be responsible for driving them home, still high from the sedation, blind in one eye, and sporting a large plastic eye patch like a translucent tea strainer secured with strips of tape across the face and forehead. It’s not a great look.

The turnover is fast - dodderers are checking in while other post-op dodderers are trundled out in wheelchairs and transferred into the care of their designated loved one. Eventually my name is called and I’m welcomed in by a bear-like man with a lot of frizzy hair. He’s wearing scrubs and two hairnets: one containing his head hair, the other a large, bushy beard. He’s very nice, takes my coat and scarf and hangs them up.

I’m shown into the prep room where they strap me into a high, comfy armchair that reclines. Everyone is so nice and kind. There’s a slightly forced air of jollity and jocularity among the staff - you don’t have to be mad to work here but if you are - it helps! - that kind of thing. Minds are being put at ease - you’re in safe hands here. There’s music playing, sixties music, the soundtrack to our young lives. Mamas & Papas, California Dreamin’; Simon & Garfunkel, The Sound Of Silence. It’s all going to be okay…

The room is lined with bays, each one equipped with one of these big armchair things occupied by an old person being prepped. A jovial older man - moustache, white coat - puts an IV in my hand. It doesn’t hurt, they’ve already given me a preliminary injection. The IV is hooked up and I’m away on a cloud of contentment. 

Whoa wo listen to the music… Mmmmm…Doobie Brothers - nice...

I know what this is and it’s not cataract surgery - they’re going to off us. We’re the chosen ones, old and useless, selected to help make room on this overcrowded planet. That’s okay, I’m ready.

By the second week of January I had two functioning eyes. Not fully functioning, but I’ve got 20/20 distance vision. I was given the okay to drive without glasses which was weird for me, a bit like going to the supermarket with no trousers on. 

The up and close and everything else vision was a different matter - I couldn’t see a thing. It’s pointless getting an eye test for at least six weeks after the completed surgeries. Apparently it takes up to six months for the eyes to settle down. They don’t tell you this. You can get specially calibrated lenses put in your eys when you get the surgery so that you have perfect vision afterwards and never need to wear glasses again. They tell you all about that. It costs more and I don’t think the extra is covered by most health insurance providers, certainly not by mine. What they don’t tell you is that over a period of time the eyes adjust, and a year later a lot of people need glasses.

I’m stuck with the German readers I mentioned earlier. Apart from looking ridiculous, they pull my eyes in two different directions. And I have to wear dark glasses when I go outside - my eyes have always let in too much light but now it’s worse than ever.

I had some extremely pressing things to do: we had to get rid of all the junk we’ve amassed in twelve years of living in the same place, and make the house into a saleable proposition. Door frames needed replacing, sheet rock walls needed to be taped and plastered, holes in walls required attention, ceilings had to be repaired,. The house is charming - eccentric, warm and fuzzy, a great place to live in and create in. But in the cold light of an impending sale sign it’s a dump. It’s got good bones, they all said that, but nothing was finished. We had two months to edit down our crap and make the place look good in time for the early spring house market boost.

And I had a book to edit. 

My 2003 autobiography is scheduled for re-publication by the Tapete Records publishing division Ventil Verlag. The manuscript needed a few minor tweeks, and I decided I need to write a fairly extensive foreword to bring things up to date - to give some latterday relevence or whatever. On examination the minor tweeks turned into a massive undertaking - I’m surprised I got away with it when it first came out. It was never really proof read, for reasons you’ll find out about in the new foreword (assuming, that is, that you’re going to buy a copy). There were howling spelling mistakes, sentences that blundered into cul de sacs, a few minor half-truths, and one or two things that might have landed me on the receiving end of a legal action. It all needed fixing, and I had six weeks to do it.

So it was on with the paint splattered jeans and the German readers and down to work.

I’m proud of the work we did on the book. I didn’t rewrite it - really it just came down to repairing ambiguous sentence constructions and correcting a lot of spelling mistakes. My long-suffering editor at the publishing company, Oli Schmidt, argued for more punctuation and came up with suggestions. I considered them all, tried them out, but vetoed most of them. When I wrote the book I intended it to sound like I was speaking directly to the reader - in some places correcting the punctuation destroyed the effect, so it stayed as it was. 

I enjoyed writing the foreword - it was strange to be writing about something I wrote over twenty years ago about a time that ended almost fifteen years before that. A double head fuck. I worried that the foreword might be better than the actual book -I realised I’ve become a better writer over the past twenty years, though you might not think so reading this.

I’ve included five lyrics, one to preface each of the five sections of the book: Father To The Man for Sussex By The Sea, Gateway To Europe for Hull, 40 Years for Melody Road, 1983 for The Slippery Slope, and Drag Time for 2 Up Too Down In The Medway Towns. I was thinking of running a competition where you had to match the lyrics to the appropriate section title, but the effort seemed fairly insurmountable, so I didn't bother. Story of my life really.

It wasn’t easy to do the editing in time - because of course there was a deadline - and a deadline for the cover design, and the usual back and forth and arguments over aesthetic concerns versus marketing requirements. I must have read and re-read the book five times, the reading spectacles pulling my eyes in two different directions, but at least making the type vaguely legible. The strain made my eyes sore and eventually I got an infection. I’m not trying to elicit sympathy, or pity or whatever, I just want anyone else who’s going for cataract surgery to be sure to plan on being as computer free as they can in the weeks after the operations. The surgery really isn’t so bad, it’s worth having it done. I can see again! And the book is going to be great.

The front cover is a black and white photo of me with the infamous Rickenbacker, taken by David Corio in the flat I shared with his sister - 1 Melody Road, Wandsworth. It was a Saturday morning in early January 1978. I can feel how cold that flat was. I’m lost inside a large, woolly sweater from a jumble sale. It was freezing but I’m wearing baseball boots as we called them at the time - I never seemed to have proper shoes. David very kindly gave me the photos. He was just starting out as a photographer - he must have been all of seventeen years old. I feel honoured to have been there at the beginning of such a great career.

Everything I do seems trivial - while I’ve been engaged in all this a faction of society has been bombed out of existence. The champions of law, order, public decency, acceptable behaviour and the rest of it take a high moral tone. The defenders of decency are banning books, defunding libraries, and telling us the termination of a pregnancy is an abomination in the sight of God - they talk about the value and sanctity of human life, they preach forgiveness and redemption, and stand back while thirty thousand civilians are killed on the Gaza Strip. 

It’s all out of whack, but you don’t need me to tell you that. Why did that bastard take so long to call for a ceasefire? Don't answer that, the question is merely rhetorical.

Perhaps my life and activities are trivial - I feel bad in part for going on about them, but in this dumb and stupid society we’re living in it’s as well to keep the brain active. Use it or lose it, they say. It seems to me a large part of America has already lost it. I keep seeing a pick-up truck in the neighbourhood with a huge flag flying off the back: God, Guns & Trump

Excuse me while I plucketh out mine right eye.

I’m packing up, I’m planning tour dates, I’m keeping on keeping on.

The new edition of A Dysfunctional Success comes out on May 17th, the day before my 70th birthday. You can make an old man very happy by pre-ordering a signed copy from Rough Trade, who will then think I'm an extremely successful and sought-after artist...