Push Yourself A Little Bit More (Backstage At The Tour De France)
Johnny Green - Orion Books
This book is punk rock. It's up there with the great rock'n'roll scribblings of the last 20 years. And it's all about the Tour De France. That's what I said. But hang on a minute...
Last year, when I was writing my book on The Clash, I phoned up their legendary road manager Johnny Green and spoke to a man I still count as one of the best friends I ever had for the first time in over 20 years. Within seconds the wilderbeast impressions, unlikely animal limb combinations and - most vitally - Foghorn Leghorn exchanges were in full swing just like it was while traversing the country's highways in the van over 25 years ago. Johnny always talks about an everlasting bond between the few who were with The Clash through all the mayhem. The word is family. So, apart from being immensely helpful with his tales and insights for the book, Johnny did me the ultimate honour and offered - I didn't ask - to write the 'Forewarned'.
I first met Johnny when he joined The Clash in '78. A lofty madman who kept this group together and got 'em through those tours, along with dealing with the daily sticky situations and sometimes ludicrous incidents that arose. Johnny had taken on a dangerous job but thrived on the chaos and danger surrounding the greatest group of all time. Plus he had to put up with me and Robin Banks - not to mention Messrs Simonon and Headon and anyone else who felt stupid enough to join in - acting the goat, the wilderbeast, gnu, Thompson's Gazelle, you name it. He was the star of ‘Rude Boy’.
We went through many episodes of Clash history together but when Johnny felt it was getting too safe and predictable, he upped and left. He had a stint with country punk and Clash support Joe Ely in Texas.
When he returned, we hung out a lot, and got up to no good together, if you catch my drift (What? Sharing knitting needles? Ed). When I was managing punky-reggae outfit Basement 5 in the early 80s I needed a road manager. To my amazement, Johnny offered himself up for the job. We then proceeded to wreak havoc throughout Europe, leaving a trail of animal murals in hotel showers, trashed equipment, smashed traffic bollards and empty police cells in our wake. I shared a room with Johnny. We both had the same taste in wakeup requirements. We talked a lot about The Clash. He would tell many of the anecdotes which popped up later in his marvellous book, ‘A Riot Of Our Own: Night And Day With The Clash’.
By the mid-80s me and Johnny had lost contact due to our individual circumstances. We took our own wayward courses which both involved self-destruction and personal tragedy but also included great adventures and finally happiness. Johnny hasn't had a drink for years but, fuelled by caffeine, gets his kicks in other ways. He hasn't dulled with age one iota. If anything, he's even more irrepressible, having reached that plateau of permanent clarity which comes from sobriety after a long period of caning everything. After being used to artificial energy and stimulation, the brain and body no longer have to waste days in recovery trying to restore the balance and can concentrate on maintaining a constant level of lunacy and sparkle. Everything becomes an experience and the new drug is excitement and adrenaline. Johnny found this in the Tour De France. Johnny numbers that Basement 5 jaunt as one of the best tours he's been on. He's been on some tours. None like this one though.
I was shocked when he told me. Going back to that phone call. 'I'm writing a book!' - he crowed. Like Gillingham's answer to the cartoon rooster, Foghorn Leghorn, who lights up his life along with missus Nesta and five kids. 'It's about the Tour De France.'
Somewhat taken aback, I made the obvious cracks about lycra shorts, couldn't see him riding a racing bike and all the ribbings he was obviously used to batting away. Johnny launched into his reasons. How, in popular vernacular, France's enormous bike race is the new rock'n' roll. He gushed enthusiastically about the behind the scenes antics and activities attached to the competition. Particularly the drugs, performance-enhancing or otherwise. The characters, feats of endurance and sheer rush. He likened it to being on tour with The Clash - buzz-wise - although it's obviously another world. A riot of its own
Joe Strummer, who'd been so supportive when Johnny wrote his Clash book, is thanked in the acknowledgements, 'for kick startin' my idea'. Push Yourself A Little Bit More - it's title comes from a Dr Feelgood song about life on the road - is no technical manual, sport-stupid tribute or in any way played by the rules. It might centre around Johnny's stint with the 2004 tour accompanied by his son Earl and a mysterious character called The Brief, but this captivating sprint of a book is also a personal voyage, self-exorcism of past demons and homage to his heroes. Barely stopping for breath.
Thus, devotees of the sport more used to reading about champion Lance Armstrong, spanners and speed records are confronted with a roll-call which includes Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Jim Morrison, Motorhead, Roy Orbison, Sheryl Crow, Chuck Berry, Gram Parsons, the Velvet Underground, Blackbeard the pirate and, of course, Foghorn Leghorn. Oh, and Lance Armstrong. There are numerous affectionate references to his past employers. Rock 'n' roll is never far away. There's many a spot-on one-liner: 'The best rock'n'roll is heart and mind, a ju-ju mix of intellect 'n' gut reaction'.
The spirit of Keith Richards hangs over this book like an opiated cloud (and I love it). He manages to grasp the essence of what makes Keith great and link it with the Tour. 'Although I was a child of the 60s, I was not a weedy herb man for long. I blame Keith Richards...Out of it. He was ostentatiously consuming a cornucopia of pills 'n' powders. At the same time, he was creating the most sublime rock 'n' roll ever made. Exile On Main Street is the very best record, depending on your day-to-day mood. To combine the two has made Keith Richards a hero in my book. His longevity. Keith would probably never has chosen an old man's wheezing fireside death. His best way out would have to be onstage. In the middle of a Telecaster power chord.
'Keith has shown that taking drugs can enhance your sensitivity, derange your senses in Baudelaire/Rimbaud style, or just plain get you through a tough day. It's all in the perspective. Sensational slagging is the New Puritan angle. No "cheating"; no "performance enhancing".'
Throughout you get the feeling that Johnny's just glad to be here himself. He still respects drugs and booze and people who take them. Not doing them himself is a small price to pay for being alive. One of the most moving passages in the book is when he's given a flagon of local gin in a welcome pack. Johnny doesn't want to waste it so he looks for the nearest alcoholic - he knows what to look for and presents it to him. ' I didn't want to hold it in. Tears flowed, I sobbed, I choked. I cried because he was me. The man I gave the stone bottle of gin to was myself. I hope he enjoyed it. God bless Le Tour de fucking France.'
Now Johnny drinks gallons of coffee in the morning - 'I was buzzing. Two pints of Expresso. The usual. As a lapsed drug fiend it's all I've got. Hell, I'd given up the fags last winter. No booze, no gear. I'd made it to this fine morning, by the skin of my teeth at times. I have been no stranger to the de-tox ward and re-hab therapy.
It's one way to last the course.' Now the tour is his new drug. 'I can feel the change. I immediately recognise the transformations in me,' he writes, as if he's just whacked an armful of skag or popped a little fella. The word 'rush' gets used a lot.. Johnny has replaced his constant companions Harry, Sammy (code0 and Mr Booze with an uncontainable lust for life and its mad streaks. He obviously still likes a good nutter ('It is a rare and beautiful thing to see a man lose the plot completely'). Laughter is never far from the agenda either.
This is a classic road book. You could also file it next to Hunter S. Thompson. 'I was looking for thrills and danger,' he writes.
He always said he left The Clash when that stopped happening. Johnny is drawn to chaos, the adrenaline surges, and the characters. He even touches on soft porn when describing his total admiration for cool veteran Tour legend Mario Cipollini. 'I was next to Mario Cippolini. The moment had come...I looked down at his muscular thighs, bronzed and smooth. I wanted to stretch out my hand and stroke his bare flesh down to his knee with my palm. I knew that action would give me a lifetime's good ju-ju.' 'Ju-ju' is Johnny's key word throughout. Call it good luck, vibes, fate. He'd be lost without a little ju-ju stone he carries in his pocket.
If rock'n'roll and excess are never far away from Johnny's narrative, there is still plenty of info and background on the actual contest. He is a genuine fan - obviously a massive admirer of the invincible Lance Armstrong (who, I was amazed to read, beat cancer to become undisputed king of the Tour). He meets him too. 'I felt humbled and exhilarated. For me, it was worth the long journey'. In the next breath, he'll be quoting Motorhead's 'Ace Of Spades', before knocking out his grievances against society and music. Especially stadium rock and inaccessible rock stars. 'It took the intimacy of punk rock to shake things up,' he rightly points out. At the end of the Tour, Johnny visits the grave of Jim Morrison in Paris.
I'm amazed at Johnny's eye for detail. He can vividly recall what he had for breakfast, casual remarks from anyone from top cyclists to passing punters and the gamut of emotions coursing through his head at any particular moment. He was the same when he helped me out on my Clash book, recounting his anecdotes like it was yesterday. Johnny Green is always spot on. He has to be when dealing with a subject that could easily swing to anorakism. As Foghorn Leghorn says, 'Fortunately I keep my feathers numbered for just such an emergency'.
Look, you get the drift. Johnny Green has turned in one of the most riveting literary wallops of the 21st century so far. Chapeaux, Mr Green, as they say in France.
Orion Books held a launch party at the Boogaloo bar in North London. Johnny was sharing the night with football legend Stan Bowles, who had a biog to promote. Mick Jones was said to be dj-ing but 'Scratchy' Myers did his Mescalero-friendly eclectic thing and lots of Johnny's old mates turned out. Mick got up and said a few words instead, before introducing Stan.
Johnny's reading was punk expressive. Lenny Bruce meets Tommy Cooper. He was having fun, even reading the passage about Cippolini - 'He slowly turned toward...' - he relished the sniggers. After that he was joined by the legendary Jock Scott for some banter and probing. Jock always MCs at Clash-related events like this. When talk turned to Foghorn Leghorn, Johnny unfurled a six foot Foggy banner which Primal Scream once gave to me. I had passed it on.
It made me feel all warm. There was this great bloke who's been through the highest highs and the lowest lows, working the room, laughing his bollocks off and sticking his chest out like his beloved Foghorn Leghorn with a pride that comes with knowing you've done something great.
Go Johnny go.
Kris Needs tMx 20 07/05