Among the Thugs, Part I

by Thomas Beller

01/02/2002

460 west 54th st ny 10019

Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad, Midtown

“I LOVE THAT MAN A BITCH!” SHOUTS LIAM GALLAGHER. HE JUMPS OUT OF HIS CHAIR and paces around the room in a small tight circle. “If anyone stepped on his toes, I’d cut them off!”

Liam sits down, and his voice becomes grave and somber. “I’d do time for ‘im. I luv ‘im. Me and ‘im are cool. But…” and here he jumps up as though he’d just sat on a thumbtack, “We’re brothers! And we get into terrible rows about, abou…aba….” His eyes are wide with terror and anger at not finding the word.

“Abba! About Abba! We could get into terrible rows about anything! We could get into a row about a bun!”

Liam launches into a bit of mock dialogue, playing both himself and his brother/bandmate, Noel Gallagher:

“That’s a bun.”

“That’s not a fook-king bun!”

“It’s a fook-king bun!”

“Bun’s never said anything to you, ya coont!”

He lets this last word ring out, then deflates back into himself. His wide and menacing blue eyes, touched up by some Clockwork Orange-ish eyeliner, become hooded again.

“It’s not changed. I love my family. I love my friend over there [Danny, the bodyguard, whose huge round face is blushing]. And I’m starting to dig you.”

***

Oasis’s sound is not particularly groundbreaking – dense, structured rock music with staggeringly catchy riffs- but their vibe is. Amid this rather prudent, health-conscious decade of non-ostentation, Oasis have revived the grand rock tradition of hedonism and bad behaviour (“Drugs are like getting up and having a cup of tea in the morning,” Noel has declared; when I asked if he smoked pot, he said, “We’re just into beer and various powders”). There is no apologetic recovery-speak with Oasis; why take 12 steps when one big one will do? Their songs convey the same brash attitude. “All your dreams are made / When you’re chained to the mirror and the razor blade,” is an unusually dark comment on drug use. More common is, “You could wait for a lifetime / To spend your days in the sunshine / You might as well do the white line / ‘Cause when it comes on top…You’ve got to make it happen!” (The exclamation point is in the official lyrics.)

The twist is that although Oasis’s music is rebelliously swaggering, their ethos in general is of a rather life-affirming nature. “Mad for it” is the band’s rallying cry. “You gotta roll with it… You gotta say what you say / Don’t let anybody get in your way.” Even the song titles implore and exhort – “Live Forever,” “Alive,” “Supersonic” (“I’m feeling supersonic / Give me gin and tonic / You can have it all / But how much do you want it?”).

The songs come from the mind of Noel Gallagher, 30, and they issue from the mouth of Liam, his junior by five years, but his senior in number of newspaper and magazine covers, number of fights picked, and number of insults hurled and received. Their first album, Definitely Maybe, featured the brilliant single “Live Forever,” and a lot of other songs that featured brilliantly familiar riffs – “Cigarettes & Alcohol,” a dead ringer for T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong”; cops from the Beatles, circa Revolver and Rubber Soul, abounded. The follow-up, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, was filled with even better songs, but its buzz centered largely on the parochial skirmish with fellow Britpoppers Blur, who at the time were a greater commercial presence.

Blur are eccentric pop artists; their homage to working-class England, Parklife, was a smash and single-handedly put Britpop on the map, but it was, nevertheless, ironic. Oasis, on the other hand, were brash, working-class louts, uninhibited by decorum, good taste, or irony. They brawled and boozed and snorted (cocaine being the drug of choice in post-acid house England) their way to the status of massive generational icons (in Europe, Morning Glory sold nine million). In America (where it sold more than 3.5 million), the album’s semi-power ballad “Wonderwall” drifted cozily out of supermarket speakers everywhere. Now, having nearly combusted with drink and drugs and, most of all, the tempestuous relationship between the Gallagher brothers, they’ve completed their third album, which possesses this year’s pithy Oasis exhortation as its title: Be Here Now. Everything they do wrong turns out to be something they do right.

***

“I have learned to stop doing this,” says Liam, holding his hand in a backwards peace sign, the British version of flipping the bird. “I stopped doing this because the people I was telling to fuck off were the great fucking public! You know what I mean? So I don’t do it anymore. I just sort of laugh, and wave, ‘Hello England! Hello public!’ and then a swift kick in the shin to the photographer.”

Liam mimes a vicious kick, as though the photographer’s shin were a soccer ball. Then he sits back down. “I’m young,” he says, “but I’m learning.”

Here is a generalization one can comfortably make about Noel and Liam Gallagher, the odd couple who compose, respectively, the brains and the brawn of Oasis: Noel does not like to fight, Liam does.

“I’ve got Muhammad in me, man. Muhammad Ali,” says Liam. “I was watching When We Were Kings the other day, and he just jumped in me, man. I’ve got a bit of Lennon and all that, and now I’ve got a bit of Ali. I’ve got two loudmouth arrogant bastards living inside me. I like to think so anyway. It’s good for me ego.”

He stands up again, and begins to move around as though in a boxing ring, hunched up, throwing jabs and roundhouse punches.

Can you really fight?

“I can fucking do that, yeah. When I’m not pissed.”

And when you’re pissed?

“I get me head kicked in.”

***

Danny, the bodyguard, trails Liam Gallagher into the Sony Studios on Manhattan’s West 54th Street for our interview, which strikes me as a little odd. A manager or a publicist maybe, someone to make sure Liam doesn’t say the wrong thing. But the significant contingent of people who have a vested interest in Oasis long ago gave up on containing what Liam says. So the next best thing is trying to contain what he does. Thus: Danny.

For security reasons, I was informed, Oasis could not be interviewed all at once. For the security of Oasis, that is. Apparently, if Noel and Liam Gallagher share the company of a journalist, there is too high a probability that they will inflict some kind of physical or psychic damage on each other.

First come Alann White, Paul “Guigs” McGuigan, and Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs – drums, bass, and rhythm guitar, respectively – the three members of Oasis you’ve never heard of. They are roly-poly, bemused, and all clutching beer bottles. In fact, they look as though they have been clutching beer bottles since the moment they rolled out of bed; except for Bonehead, the band jester, whose alcohol suntan suggests he rolled out of bed with a beer bottle clenched between his teeth.

McGuigan, the bassist, left an Oasis tour in 1995 due to what a press release described as nervous exhaustion. Arthurs generously summarizes: “He had a crispy.”

Oasis tours are rumored to be blizzards of substance abuse and insults, and I ask if any of this contributed to McGuigan’s bout with nervous exhaustion.

“Nope,” he says, and nibbles on one of his fingers. Each and every member of Oasis, I am to learn, is a chronic nail-biter.

What happened on that tour?

“The plot got lost,” McGuigan says softly. “Then it got found.” Oasis are all British football fanatics, but McGuigan was the one with the ability, rumored to have a shot at the pros, if not for drink and drugs; he’s working on a book, The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw, about a great talent of the ’70s who burned himself out on the hard stuff, and died young. Within every biography is an autobiography.

“But there was never any chance that Guigs would actually leave the band,” interjects Arthurs, in a rare moment of sincerity. “And besides, the guy who we got to replace Guigs had a crispy himself!”

White sits quiet most of the time. He is the band’s second drummer. The first, Tony McCarroll, was ejected due to “personality differences” with Noel Gallagher, though the fistfight he got into with Liam at a Paris strip club didn’t help. He is suing the band, and, demonstrating a firm grasp on Oasis mythology, has hired Pete Best’s lawyer.

The trio eventually leaves, and their absence is followed by the calm before the storm, or, more specifically, before Liam. The band’s American publicist, a young woman who up to this point had seemed reasonably coherent, sticks her head in the room and announces excitedly, “Liam is in the building!” Fifteen minutes later she looks ashen, a decade older, in need of vitamins and rest. “Liam is in a good mood,” she hisses.

***

Liam Gallagher struts into the room kicking his feet out to the side with each step, as though each foot wants to go in a different direction. He’s wearing suede Hush Puppies, brown pants, and a tan, square-shouldered jacket with lots of gold buttons, very military in a 19th-century way (or very Beatles in a Sgt. Pepper’s kind of way). His fingers are ornamented with gold rings – collectively, they give the appearance of brass knuckles.

We shake hands.

“Fuckin’ big hands! You ought to be a goalie,” he says. Turning to Danny, who has ambled in like an enormous puppy, he adds, “Fuckin’ big ‘ands on this one.”

Liam’s hair is short and in a bit of a bowl cut, and his face is clean-shaven and unblemished. Often, Liam can look like an unwashed mechanic with a nose-hair problem; at other times he looks sublime and hauntingly beautiful. Today, it’s the latter. He slouches deep into his chair and stares blankly. If my face were a television screen, he’d be reaching for the clicker.

“You’re looking great,” I sputter lamely.

“You’re not looking bad yourself,” he snaps back, “but I’m married.”

He casts a leering glance at Danny, who smiles nervously. Liam’s marriage to Patsy Kensit (who can be summarized as a sort of British Pamela Anderson Lee, which you can take as you wish) was a huge media sensation in England, but almost everything Liam does is a huge media sensation in England. This is true of Noel as well, but to a lesser extent; Noel is genuinely more low-key – his recent marriage to his longtime girlfriend took place unannounced in Las Vegas.

Liam has fiercely avoided press interviews during the ascent of Oasis (Liam does the singing, Noel the talking), but Liam’s absence, his persistence in saying “fuck off” anytime anyone tries to pose a question or snap his picture, has only enhanced his appeal. Whereas most bands create press opportunities to sell records, the British press has, for the past year, used any possible excuse to run Liam’s picture to sell newspapers.

August 27, 1996, is a fine example. It was not a slow news day. The Prince and Princess of Wales were having their divorce finalized; a gang of Iraqi terrorists had hijacked a Sudanese airplane and were landing it in on British soil; the Prison Service announced that the prison system had freed several hundred criminals by mistake. Yet the headline story of the day was that Liam Gallagher had, 15 minutes before Oasis’s plane was scheduled to depart for an American tour, muttered something about not having a place to live with Patsy, jumped into a taxi, and went home. This was front-page, above-the-fold news.

The recent resurgence of energy and optimism in England is being fueled not by the snotty, aristocratic culture for which the country is generally known but by its cheeky, working-class youth. The most prominent figures to emerge this decade in fashion, literature, and art (Alexander McQueen, Irvine Welsh, and Damien Hirst, respectively) are all as likely to tell you to piss off as they are to offer you some tea. Oasis are the embodiment of all this. They are England’s national band, a cultural phenomenon to be cited in the same breath as the Tory party relinquishing its grasp to Tony Blair and New Labour. Last summer Oasis played two sold-out shows at Knebworth – a sort of one-band British Woodstock. An estimated five percent of the population tried to purchase tickets.

Of course, they are also “big in America.” But you have to use quotes, because in America, where rock sales are flat as a Nebraska highway, the record industry can only hope that Be Here Now will be massive.

I ask how New York has been treating Liam since he arrived last night. “Fuck-king great! New York people are fuck-king rrrocking!” He rolls the “r” like Tony the Tiger in the Frosted Flakes commercial. He continues: “Got into town last night and saw Radiohead. Boring bunch of fuck-king stoodents, I’ll kick their fuckin’ heads in, man, because they’re dicks.” His accent is swampy, the aural equivalent of lots of weird twisted trees rising out of a bog.

“I liked your new record quite a bit,” I say.

“You liked it quite a bit?” replies Liam increduously. “What do you mean you liked it quite a bit?” Suddenly enraged, he stands up and heads for the door. “See ya later, man.” He looks at Danny, who is nervously hoisting his girth off the couch. Reaching the doorway, Liam turns and shouts, “You’ve got big fucking hands, man, but I’ll knee you in the balls, man! Whaddya mean you liked it quite a bit? It’s tops, man. Tops!”

I did not know then that exactly one week later, backstage in Oakland, no less a personage than U2’s Bono would be subjected to similar, if less threatening, treatment. Liam will tell Bono how great Oasis’s record is while it blasts on U2’s dressing-room stereo. He will clutch Bono’s shoulders and insist that he sing along. Bono does. He sings: “All my people right here, right now / D’you know what I mean?”

The band will open two nights for U2 in Oakland, the first shows they’ve played in nearly ten months.

“I dig U2, ya know, but I don’t give a shit about all that fancy fucking stage crap. It’s bollocks, man, it’s like you don’t believe in your music enough,” Liam says now. “There’s nothing better than five lads on stage, or four lads…or 25 lesbians, just doing the bit, ’cause you get sidetracked and you end up not watching the show with that million-pound fucking lemon in the air.”

Onstage, Oasis are almost surreally minimal in their performances. They stand there. They play their music. They ignore one another. Onstage theatricality for Oasis usually consists of Liam Gallagher walking away from the microphone to get a beer, or crouching down to get a better look at the people up front.

This doesn’t work so well in America, but in England it works incredibly well. There is something compressed and contained in this presentation, some element of menace in the stillness. People who saw them at their now-legendary pub shows in Camden when they were just starting out say their stage demeanor has not changed a bit.

Perhaps the single most intense live music moment I ever witnessed involved Liam’s bad mood: 1995, London’s Earl’s Court, where most of the 20,000 fans were jumping frantically up and down in one massive pogo-stick orgy, while singing along to all the songs. American rock shows have their waves of moshing and crowd surfing, but England has a different energy, which I only came to understand after seeing a British football match. The British are better at, and more enthusiastic about, submerging their individuality into the collective mob. They sing together, they chant together, they riot together. And football hooligans are huge Oasis fans. Oasis themselves are football hooligans. Liam is sort of a football hooligan superman. In fact, Oasis hail from the city responsible for the most murderous, riotous football hooligans of all – Manchester.

Which brings me back to Earl’s Court, where the band rocked in that stand-still, nonemotive manner, from one song to the next. Above the stage hung an enormous video monitor, broadcasting close-ups of the various members. And toward the end, there was a close-up of Liam’s face. The band had just finished a song, and he was not singing. His face showed no expression. None. He simply stared with that weird killer expression lurking beneath the blankness, a mass-murdering sort of look, and as the camera stayed on his face, and his face remained impassive, a roar welled up from the audience. The man was not moving a muscle, not so much as a twitch of an eyelid, and the place was going wild.

***

“That’s the best guitar in the world,” says Noel Gallagher. “It’s not one of the best guitars, it’s the best guitar.”

He is wearing brown pants, a baggy, white, button-down shirt with brown buttons, and tan suede Hush Puppies. His feet are tiny (“I’m an 8,” says Liam, “but he’s a 6. Don’t know how he stands up sometimes”). In person, Noel looks more boyish, less moody and adult, than he does in photos. His face has a peculiar flat aspect to it, as though it were a bust that some avid fan had molded for her high school art project.

Noel is standing in the Gibson Artist Relations Showroom in midtown Manhattan, which could just as well be called the Artists Protection Program; its explicit purpose is to allow the likes of Noel Gallagher to fiddle with guitars without the distraction of some 12-year-old plugging into a Marshall. The guitar Noel speaks of is his own – a Les Paul Florentine Diamond Sparkle. It sits in its open case like a diamond in a jewel box, and Noel stares down at it lovingly. It’s covered in bright silver glitter. The guitar costs $3,590, but you can’t buy one. It’s custom made.

“The thing about that guitar is it’s got that extra…You know what I mean? When you’ve got everything turned all the way up, this one gives you more. It goes to ’11’.”

Noel Gallagher wants more. And he can’t be bothered if he sounds a bit like Spinal Tap. He peruses various guitars, all with detached interest, an amused gleam in his eye. The thing about Noel is that there is almost always an amused gleam in his eye, which he extinguishes only when he writes his remarkably sincere songs (of which there are many, including a raft of top B sides).

An artist’s rep with a pompadour and a Southern accent thrusts a Gibson catalog into his hands; it features a new model, “The Noel Gallagher Super Nova.” Noel stares at it for a moment before commenting, “That’s not the color I wanted. They said they couldn’t do the color I wanted.” Then he looks up and his eyes fall upon a turquoise guitar hanging in the corner. “That’s it!” he says. “That’s the color of my team, Manchester City Football Club.”

Business completed, we pile into an elevator. Noel turns to me and asks if I’ve seen any good movies lately. As it happens I saw a French movie the previous evening, La Promesse, and this strikes me as unfortunate. Noel Gallagher does not seem like the sort of person who enjoys subtitles.

“Fucking stoodent,” he mutters with an impish grin.

So you’re not the sensitive type?

“Well, I don’t consider myself to be in the same mold as Michael Stipe. He’s like, ‘Oh, God, man, I suffer for my art!’ And I’m like, ‘Oh fuck off! Go and suffer somewhere else, but don’t do it on fucking MTV when I got to watch you, ya cunt.'” It’s hard to tell which is the more derogatory term in Oasis’s lexicon – cunt or student.

Back in the plush interior of Noel’s hotel lobby, I ask how he feels about Be Here Now’s prospects in America. “In England, we’re the biggest band since the Beatles. I’m not saying we’re better than the Beatles, but everything we do in England is considered an anticlimax, because everybody puts too much importance on it. I’m like, why can’t we just be a normal fuckin’ band?”

Because you’re Oasis, ya stupid moron, I want to say, but the bodyguard lurks nearby. Oasis always seemed to be about being massive, I say. Bigness is part of it.

“But that’s it, you see. When the last came out of the speakers at Knebworth, that was the end of an era for us. We achieved everything that we ever set out to be – to play the biggest gigs, to sell the most records, to write the best songs, and we’ve done that. But it’s too much pressure, them big gigs. It’s too much pressure to fuck it up. What if you got a hangover when you’re playing to 125,000 people?”

Did you have a hangover?

“Second day we did. The first day we were all in bed early.”

The opening act at Knebworth was the Chemical Brothers, and though their sound could not seem, at first listen, more removed from Oasis, their collaboration with Noel, “Setting Sun,” went to No. 1 in England. For all its acidic techno atmosphere, the song had a distinctly Gallagher-esque touch – a winking nod to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Theft is something of a recurring theme in Noel Gallagher’s songwriting, a form of high camp beneath the sincere surface. “Step Out,” a terrific B side, is credited to Noel, Stevie Wonder, and members of Thin Lizzy, who contributed unwittingly to the song’s composition. On Oasis’s new single, “D’You Know What I Mean,” Noel manages to cram thefts from three separate songs into three lines: “The blood on the trax must be mine / The fool on the hill and I feel fine / Don’t look back cos you know what you might see.”

“I used to pinch anything when I was younger,” says Noel. “I once got caught pinching a frozen chicken. We were having the local disco, and I had a date, but I had no money, so I decided to pinch the most expensive thing on my mother’s shopping list and keep the money, which was the chicken. But I ended up getting arrested for it, getting fined 75 pounds…. Shoplifting is a rebellion, isn’t it? I suppose it’s, uh, you get off on the danger. You progress to cars, and then you progress to serious alcohol and drug abuse. Then you start a band and pinch other people’s songs. I’m a kind of artistic shoplifter.”

The image of Noel sneaking around a supermarket with a huge frozen chicken bulging out of his coat is rather comic, but the Gallagher family story begins in humble and not particularly amusing circumstances. The parents split up when Noel was 17; his mother worked for a local bakery.

On the subject of his family relations he is terse, but not particularly harsh. “Me mum divorced me dad so we all left with me mum instead of me dad because we didn’t like ‘im. I haven’t seen him since.” Noel sips his black coffee. “I used to go to football matches with ‘im. I went to my first football match in 1971, Manchester City versus Newcastle United. Man City won 5-1. We were standing in the Kippax Road stand, and at the end of it was a ledge where all the dads used to put all the kids. I used to sit on that ledge with all the little boys and that.”

Liam’s summation of his parents split, which occurred when he was 12, is still feverish with anger. “I love me mum, and me mum loves us, but I don’t give a shit about the other cunt. We last spoke about two years ago, in Dublin. I said I’d smash his fucking head if he didn’t get out of me face. He was there with a tabloid paper, News of the World. Trying to sell a story. I just said, ‘We don’t like ya, we don’t want to fuckin’ know ya.’ He’s a bad man. He used to beat her up. She didn’t fight, he fought. She’s not a fighter, she’s a lover. Next question.”

***

It is a time of peace in the world of Oasis. After the blow-out in the summer of 1996, the band took several months off and then recorded their new album at a leisurely pace.

“It’s calmer all around,” says Jill Furmanovsky, a photographer who has traveled extensively with the band, snapping pictures of them on tour and in the studio (this fall she’s publishing a collection of Oasis photos called Was There Then). “Nobody can be bothered by the little things now that they’ve been through that canceled tour. There was some sort of watershed at Abbey Road [where the band recorded most of Be Here Now]. Noel and Liam repaired the rift, and ever since then they have been much easier on each other.”

Says Noel, “Liam not coming on the plane [for the ’96 American tour], any other band would have not bothered coming in the first place. But we have two singers in the band, two frontmen. He didn’t get on the plane for whatever reason. I don’t know what bullshit reason he ended up giving, but I know it was bullshit. It’s like, if ‘The Kid’ doesn’t want to come, ‘The Kid’ doesn’t have to come. I’m more than capable of fronting this band if he doesn’t want to do it.”

He pauses for another sip of coffee. I refrain from pointing out that when Noel fronted the band on MTV’s Unplugged, his brother’s absence was glaring.

“I’d rather Liam do it, though.”

Why?

“Because I become a better guitar player when I’m just left to play guitar. I don’t think I could ever front a band, to be quite honest. I’d rather he come along and fucking do what he’s paid for than sit on his ass whinging about not having anywhere to live, when that’s not true. But there you go, that’s what makes Oasis Oasis!”

Though every note and every word of every Oasis song (notwithstanding the ones cribbed from other musicians) are written by Noel, an Oasis song is more than the sum of Noel’s parts. It must be at least strange, and perhaps terribly galling, that the enzyme by which his songs achieve their full stature belongs not to him but to his delinquent younger brother Liam.

Liam, for his part, downplays this detail as much as Noel does and, in a fit of humility, interrupts me when I refer to him as the band’s frontman. “No!” he said, “I’m not a frontman, no. Noel is more of a frontman than me. I’m just a sing-gah. ‘Cause I got a good beak.”

Hearing Noel and Liam in such agreement, I feel a bit sad that they couldn’t have been together in the same room to share the moment. But perhaps if they had been in the same room, they might not have been in agreement. Their squabbling is compulsive, and notorious, and entertaining – at least enough of the British public thought so to turn a 14-minute recording of one of their squabbles, recorded by a journalist and titled “Wibbling Rivalry,” into a top 40 hit.

Each brother’s attempt at speech is interrupted by long operatic chants of “Bullshit!” and “Shut the fuck up!” repeated like a broken record of familial exasperation. Besides the bilious comedy, the tape contains some interesting philosophical points. Liam proposes that getting wasted and deported and led off in handcuffs is generally in the spirit of rock’n’roll, and Noel counters with the idea that rock’n’roll is about music.

“I never write in the third person,” Noel tells me. “It’s never he-said-she-said. It’s you-and-me.” This sounds romantic in a “Wonderwall” sort of way until you’ve heard Noel screaming at Liam, “Fuck you, you prick!”

Click here for Part Two of this article

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