- 29 Apr 14
A veteran of several stints in rehab for heroin and crack addiction, New York-based author and musician Tony O'Neill tells Olaf Tyaransen that he's now clean and sober...ish
Growing up in Blackburn, Lancashire, but having little or no interest in football or fighting, Tony O’Neill was always considered something of an oddball outsider by his school contemporaries.
“I was a strange kid,” the 36-year-old poet, author and musician admits. “I was always more into music and literature. As a young teen I worshipped the auteurs like Shane MacGowan and Lou Reed and then guys like William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski. Literature and a certain kind of rock ‘n’ roll crossover for me. I never saw them as completely separate.”
Although O’Neill penned his first novel at the age of 15, it was never published. Worse again, nor did it succeed in getting him laid.
“It was horrible,” he laughs. “I wrote it to impress a girl at school. I don’t know if she was impressed, it never went any further than that. It was very stupid. Growing up in Blackburn, probably the least impressive thing you could do to impress a girl was profess an interest in writing books. I should have just learned to play football better. It was terrible. I was really into horror and thriller writers, and I emulated them because I had nothing to say. It wasn’t until life had knocked seven rounds of shit out of me that I had something to say.”
Currently based in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and daughter, O’Neill is now an established and prolific author, with an impressive string of critically acclaimed novels, official biographies, and poetry and prose collections to his name. His first published novel was 2006’s Digging The Vein, based on his years as a heroin and crack addict, as well as his experiences in the music industry. Its follow-up, Down And Out On Murder Mile, was described by the late Sebastian Horsley as “a map of hell with directions showing readers exactly how to get there.”
“I was 18 when I got the gig playing keyboards with Marc Almond and that’s what got me out of the north of England and down to London,” he says. “That was the point where my life kind of branched off into two possible directions. I was going to go and study music in university. I had a place and then, just on a whim, I answered an ad in Melody Maker for a keyboard player.
“I didn’t know who it was for, but it turned out to be Marc Almond and he was someone whose work I really admired a lot so I decided to take a shot at it. I deferred university for a year just to go down for the audition. So I did it and landed the gig and never picked up on that deferral, my life just spun off in a completely different direction.”
During his years recording and touring with the likes of Almond, Kenickie, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Kelli Ali, O’Neill became heavily addicted to hard drugs. He wound up living in LA, totally strung out on smack and crack.
“Well, I was using drugs of one kind or another from the age of maybe 14. When I got to London and into the music industry that was just when I got access to better quality drugs. Up in Blackburn, you didn’t really see anything like coke, it was all either low-grade speed or really bad grass or a bit of glue or pilfered alcohol from your parents’ drinks cabinet.
“But I’m Irish, my family’s all Irish, and I think there is a kind of thread of romanticism that runs through the Irish about drugs, especially booze. I found out later that I came from a sterling line of alcoholics and drug addicts. Of course, none of whom were ever talked about as a child. But later, once I’d got clean and started digging into it, I found out I wasn’t the only one in the family that had a penchant for that kind of stuff.”
Following several stints in rehab, today he considers his lifestyle to be about as moderate as it’s ever going to get.
“‘Clean’ is a very relative thing,” he reflects. “If I was in an AA meeting they’d say I definitely wasn’t clean. I still drink, I still smoke pot. If something comes along I generally dabble in most things, but what I don’t do anymore is I don’t smoke crack and I don’t inject heroin. To me, that’s clean. This is the most stable I’ve ever been. I’m productive, I can be a husband, I can be a father, I’m not a mess and that’s as clean as I ever wanted to get.
“It took me a while to realise there was no way I could be completely sober and going to AA meetings and stuff, what it really did was make me want to get high. I found myself sitting around in these church basements with a bunch of people talking about their ‘drug days’ and that sort of thing drove me crazy. It was like sitting a starving man in a room full of other starving people and everyone talking about the best steak they ever ate. That’s totally what it felt like to me.”
While he originally believed that drink and drugs would aid him creatively, he now rejects that notion.
“I remember as a 15-year-old being completely enamoured of characters like Brendan Behan and Shane MacGowan and Rimbaud, and just really admiring that idea of the fucked-up genius. And of course, you realise later that these people would have been geniuses whether they were fucked-up or not. As you get older you start to realise that the drugs were probably a side issue to why they were so good at what they did.
“To me, it’s almost like an Olympic sport. I admire the tenacity of people who pounded themselves with so many drugs and so many substances and were still able to produce great work. But it’s almost like going into work with an intentional handicap.”
O’Neill’s most recent novel is Black Neon, a sequel to 2010’s Sick City. It follows the further adventures of Sick City’s protagonists Randal and Jeffrey, and their adventures in the world of Santaria, art-house cinema and their run-ins with a pair of lesbian pharmacy bandits.
“Black Neon is a kind of sequel to Sick City although they don’t really follow one another in a narrative sense,” he explains. “They are more two books that have a shared world with shared characters. Similar to how in Irvine Welsh’s books the same characters might pop-up a few books down the line. They aren’t necessary sequels in the sense you’d need to have read the other books to understand it. If you are going to use the same kind of character, why go and invent a new name and a new persona for it?”
Already published in the US and Germany, Black Neon is being released in the UK in November. “It’s actually an independent publisher called Bluemoose putting it out. They’re from the northwest of England, right around the corner from where I grew up. So it’s an interesting experience after the last couple of books, dealing with big New York publishers, to come home and deal with a publisher that’s local to me. I’m really enjoying the experience so far.”
For further information visit www.tonyoneill.net