When Fantasy Becomes Reality: The Astonishing Early Works of Nik Cohn

I Am Still The Greatest Says Johnny Angelo/King Death
Nik Cohn
No Exit Press

After his savagely irreverent Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom appeared in 1968 as the first expansive history of rock ‘n’ roll, Nik Cohn soon found himself described as the “godfather” of modern music writing or bestowed with similar such convenient titles. Since arriving in London at the age of eighteen in 1964, Cohn had cut his teeth covering “the swinging sixties” and its pop music for The Observer and other mainstream publications but always had hopes of becoming a novelist.

That’s the lesser-feted but nevertheless crucial aspect of Cohn’s career being highlighted in this repackaging of his second novel I Am Still The Greatest Says Johnny Angelo, written when he was nineteen and published two years later in 1967, and 1975’s King Death, its phantasmagorical twin. The upside down and back to front presentation emphasises the two books’ similarities in vision as they now appear like mirror images of two fantasies about an immediate future they were never specifically intended to predict but, as time has told, came increasingly close as the years rolled by.

Both novels feature heroes, one a driven narcissist and the other a reluctant perfectionist, who ascend to astronomical nationwide fame and notoriety that exceeds any pop star, punk or president we have known. Now their wildly imaginative stories seem more like extreme nightmare visions of the 21st century’s obsession with stardom and celebrity as they predict reality TV, blanket marketing, greedy sponsorship, brain-washed mob fanaticism and always violence as an easy final solution.

The worlds depicted by Cohn in these two books seem infinitely less far-fetched than when he dreamed them up in front of his manual typewriter. Both now seem uncomfortably, often startlingly, close to home and life in the second decade of the 21st century. Rather like JG Ballard’s 1980s novels, the future concepts depicted by Cohn would start materialising just a few years later and soon be ringing uncomfortably true. Both books (and Cohn’s other early writings) also highlight how dull and boring a lot of writing is today, especially in the music press he practically kick-started nearly fifty years ago before moving swiftly on (not before influencing Pete Townshend to invent his pinball wizard and writing the New York Magazine story that provided the part-fictional basis for Saturday Night Fever).

When Cohn wrote I Am Still The Greatest Says Johnny Angelo, Elvis Presley was still the world’s biggest pop star, although the Beatles and the Stones had ignited a more fanatic form of mass worship. They’re the ones Cohn noticed growing up in Derry and leading his reporting in London although, as he says in his introduction to this new edition, his main influence was P.J. Proby; a name often overlooked by music history but remembered by anyone who encountered the histrionic singer during his short peak between 1964 and 1965, when he caused nation-wide uproar by splitting his skin-tight velvet trousers on stage in Croydon then again in Luton. The fuss across the country was sufficiently tumultuous to snuff his stardom and temporarily finish his career. (After years being spotted propping up west London bars, Proby took the oldies circuit that still provides his living today.)

Hailing from Texas, Proby was a hard-drinking ego-maniac with a highwayman’s pony-tail, baggy-sleeved period shirt and skin-tight strides. He was prone to extreme melodrama, whether launching into a falsetto shriek on his first hit ‘Hold Me’ or quivering his lower-lip into wracked sobs during his version of ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story. In his introduction, Cohn recalls Proby as “a big, swaggering Texan who burst on the British pop scene like John Wayne storming Imo Jima – if you can imagine the Duke in a blue velvet boiler suit with silver buckles on his shoes and an 18th century page-boy bob.”

When Cohn was assigned to interview Proby at a Regents Park hotel for The Observer, he got much more than he bargained for as the singer sat in his underwear in the darkened hotel suite drinking bourbon and let fly against the world. Dogged by bad press and nation-wide scorn, he felt all the world was against him. “I am an artist and should be exempt from bullshit,” he said. “Nobody saw his true greatness, or treated him with due reverence,” maintained Cohn, who had sat scribbling frantically as Proby “told epic tales of childhood traumas, of Hollywood nights and cutting demos for Elvis” and “of women who cut up his heart for sport. Eventually the stories blurred into one another, their twists and turns so byzantine, their language both so filthy and grandiose, that in the end I lost track of them, and nothing was left but the sound of his bourbon-soaked Texan drawl.”

At that time, music journalism was still in its infancy and there certainly wouldn’t have been any room for such wide-scale expounding from a drunken pop star in The Observer. Meeting Proby had such a profound effect on Cohn it set him on his life’s path. “I’d never met anyone like him,” he recalls now. “The darkened room, the obscenity, the madness – Proby scared me quite a bit but thrilled me even more. By the time I stumbled back onto the street, and daylight, I knew I’d been handed the bones of a book.”

Cohn rushed back to his damp North London room and proceeded to pound out I Am Still The Greatest Says Johnny Angelo under a bare lightbulb. He’s quick to point out that Johnny Angelo is not Proby with some cosmetic exaggerating and his afternoon with the troubled singer was just “a springboard. The rest was all my own imagining.” Obsessed with rock stars as “self-made gods”, Cohn created extremes of excess that already started ringing remarkably close to home the following decade. Cohn had considered the notion of reinvention before the term became widely abused. In 1965 it meant someone could throw off the identity they were born with to escape “whatever drab and gutless existence lay in store, and make yourself into anything you had the nerve to conceive.” He cites Elvis (“white trash mamma’s boy, curled his lip and swivelled his hips, and bingo! became a messiah”), bullied wimp-turned “teen millionaire” Phil Spector, Lennon, Jagger and Townshend as active icons who’d reshaped their destinies from anonymous, some even hopeless, beginnings. P.J. Proby was simply the particular larger-than-life early damage case that loomed in Cohn’s face and lit the blue touch-paper for him to create the kamikaze rock ‘n’ roll Frankenstein of Johnny Angelo.

Cohn describes the book, which he dedicated to the Presley Twins, as “an act of vengeance…against the world and its unfairness, but even more against myself. It’s filled with narcissistic self-loathing, a revelling in excess for excess’s sake.” Introducing concepts and scenarios that were virgin turf when the novel appeared in 1967, the book was slammed as “sick” by mainstream press but inevitably built a devout underground following. Halfway through it now the realisation dawned that I had somehow read this book 50 years ago. Although I then took it in as barely-conceivable hip science fiction, I was too young to appreciate any further implications until witnessing Bowie’s first gig as Ziggy Stardust in January 1972. As Bowie’s rise accelerated, it made more sense, even if adolescence had already buried the book deep in my subconscious. According to the blurb, the book did influence Bowie’s first great reinvention (and countless others’ concept albums and movies) but, even if that makes perfect sense, I can’t say I’ve read that in any of the works on that subject and it shouldn’t be the main reason for buying Cohn’s book now.

Even after Ziggy’s rise and rock ‘n’ roll suicide, Hendrix’s on-stage pyrotechnics, Jimmy Page’s mysterious mansions or the life-endangering mob violence of Rollermania, Johnny Angelo still shocks but seems ever more prescient in this modern age craving cheap thrills and public spills. Like King Death, the book’s dominating relevance now is the way Cohn depicts a media-besotted mass public that allows and actively encourages these two stories to unfold. The devil’s grip of the internet on public taste and behaviour patterns was still over 30 years away when Cohn wrote them but the slavish pursuit of idols created by the media was already alive and kicking.

After springing out of a dirt poor childhood in an unspecified American city, Johnny Angelo is forced to build his own inner dream world. At school, he is bullied after refusing to fraternise, speak or take part in the other kids’ silly games, but finds a friend in an old eccentric called the Doctor, who lives alone in a big old mansion full of antiques, curios and tales of superstar gunslingers he had known. On his tenth birthday, the Doctor buys Johnny “the full uniform of a dude”; high-heeled black boots with silver spurs, Doc Holliday top-coat and black Stetson, plus two silver cap-guns. By eleven the lonely boy is walking the rough docklands as “the phantom that lurks in the graveyard, the vampire that flies like a bat.” By fourteen, Johnny is “a heart-throb”, sporting sideburns, golden quiff and “lop-sided smile”, wearing a photo of the recently-appeared Elvis next to his heart. Local schoolgirls worship him like their own King, scream when he arrives late for school every day, cigarette dangling from his bottom lip, and write his name in lipstick everywhere. Obviously, all this ignites blind hatred in the lumpen boys, who pelt him with pea-shooters while the girls hurl jelly babies. He’s beaten up every day but always holds his defiant pose. When he buys a pair of blue suede shoes, which he gazes at and brushes every night, they are inevitably trashed. His only friend is a simple albino boy called Catsmeat.

At fifteen, Johnny leaves home, moving into a cold-water room where he places a photograph of Elvis on the wall. Every night he sits in a nearby café, playing the jukebox and finding his epiphany on December 21 1956 in a clip of Little Richard singing ‘Tutti Frutti’; “Then everything was different.” He now looks like a Teddy Boy with drape jacket, drainpipes and winklepickers when dives into a violent leather boy riot at the local cinema where Jailhouse Rock is showing and stabs a policeman instead of a seat.

By now, Cohn is revealing his forte for describing the original impact of rock ‘n’ roll in its original primal form as Johnny’s growing up arc continues at a dockland club called Heartbreak Hotel. After beating local gang leader Ace in a cigarette smoking contest, he dons a black leather jacket with ELVIS studded on the back, straddles a big black motorbike and is soon leading the state’s biggest gang on night rides that leave a trail of destruction as all rivals are wiped out.

Johnny’s life changes again after Catsmeat robs a store and presents him with an electric guitar shaped like a spaceship. He spends hours in front of his full-length mirror, “…not leaning how to play but learning how to move. How to drop his hips, how to grind, how to bury his guitar in his groin. Above all, how to twitch.” He starts singing and is soon making his debut at Heartbreak Hotel, enrapturing the packed room with his gold lame-swathed legs “that slithered like serpents.” By the time he’s sixteen, his Mighty Avengers rule the city but, after a nightmare dalliance with a black voodoo seductress called The Cobra, Johnny realises he can’t rise any higher than biker omnipotence unless he departs for the bright lights of Movie City.

Part Three starts with Johnny established as America’s biggest pop star at the age of 24; a vision in gold velvet and suede, riding from city to city in his golden Cadillac, followed by his entourage, circus troupe performing in an open wagon and his own zoo following them in another string of trailers. After bringing that night’s city to a stand-still, Johnny retires to the dressing room that an advanced team of interior decorators have decked out with gilded mirrors, chandeliers, Persian rugs, Egyptian tapestries and satin chaises longues on which Johnny reclines after spending two hours to get ready. His hair is tied into an 18th century ponytail with a black velvet bow, his face made up by beauticians and his legs squeezed into skin-tight blue velvet. After being hung with bracelets and his trademark silver crucifix, and a Tarot-reading astrologer has okayed the performance going ahead, Johnny Angelo is ready to take the stage.

It’s already pandemonium out there as circus performers do tricks, animals stalk the aisles and goat-skins of rough Algerian wine are passed around liberally. Up to thirty thousand screaming teenage girls are going crazy until, after the endless build-up, Johnny takes the stage atop his gold Cadillac. Everything explodes as he jack-knifes into the air. “Lights flashed and flames leaped up and mirrors glinted all over the auditorium, blinding and distorting, and a hundred musicians thumped, strummed and blew, and bass drums rolled like thunder, and electric guitars wailed like sirens, and then Johnny hit the ground…”. The screaming, that “resembled no scream that you’d ever heard”, is enough to shatter the building’s windows, showering the throng with broken glass.

Cohn (who, it has to be remembered again and again, is writing these words in 1965 at the age of eighteen) assesses Johnny as “satanic, messianic, kitsch and camp, and psychotic, and martyred, and just plain dirty.” In those words, he has just described the modern rock concert, or rather its usually unrealised aspirations.

And, of course, Johnny splits his trousers, though that’s a minor sideshow here as Cohn amps to grotesque levels the kind of audience adulation heaped on Proby or his beloved Stones, complete with James Brown-style fake collapses and full-scale riot at the climax. What is essentially Cohn’s review of Angelo’s show is actually the most exciting report you’d ever want to read about a band if you were a teenager in a grey world. No wonder I remember it now. It’s often said that Cohn’s early books pulse with the raw energy of rock ‘n’ roll, when that newly-arrived force was in the hands of pre-army Elvis, Little Richard and Jerry Lee, rather than today’s privileged beard cultivators or hoary throwbacks recycling Johnny Thunders stereotypes for the thousandth time.

Cohn’s skill in both these books is building the main character, extending their story onwards and upwards until it defies any grounding in reality and reaches a logical conclusion in hell. Still the heroes get bigger and bigger, until the fall arrives, swiftly and mercilessly. In Johnny’s case, having conquered the whole country, he moves with his fawning entourage into a 50 room mansion, surrounded by electrified fences, uniformed army and neon lights that illuminate the country for miles around. Inside, Johnny sits cocooned in the dark, watching TV and the close circuit screens that lace the mansion, or holds huge banquets at night, surrounded by gun-slinging bodyguards.

Nik Cohn author pic

Finally, after one concert erupts into an orgy of death and destruction that leaves over 20 bodies buried in the rubble, Johnny is charged with indecent exposure and incitement to riot. When he emerges after 90 days he finds himself ostracised and banned across the nation, so retreats to the desert and builds a hundred feet tall statue of himself, his vital organs lit by neon and ‘I AM THE GREATEST’ beaming defiantly in huge letters from its crown. After the first grey hair sprouts on his golden head, Johnny Angelo allows himself to be gunned down by cops and ends his life. Eerily, he has just hit the age of 27. Against all odds, he’d reached the ultimate peak of fame but couldn’t fight the onset of time (Even Cohn couldn’t predict how few of our ageing bands would know when to call it a day and tarnish ruining their once golden images by milking their past achievements for decades after their last hit. But then today’s nostalgia boom could never have been conceived when many landmark events simply hadn’t happened yet).

If Johnny Angelo took rock stardom to its furthest extremes of excess, King Death made even profounder predictions that envisioned murder being screened on primetime TV and produced the nation’s biggest celeb. Not that the lone assassin called Eddie thrust into this position wants it that way. He sees his deliverance of contracted death as a performing art, delivered as the sacred service he calls “a completion”. His subjects are not afraid when approached by Eddie, the classic man in black with slouch hat pulled down. They are so transfixed by his eyes, that momentarily “gleam and sparkle like tiny diamonds refracting” while he’s completing his task, that they consider his embrace a privilege.

The story starts in Tupelo, Mississippi (the Elvis birth-place that’s stoked speculation Eddie is actually Presley’s still-born twin brother Jesse). Top TV entrepreneur Seaton Carew is sitting at his hotel room window when he disbelievingly witnesses Eddie perform on a local hustler. “The two men, as they touched, appeared to mesh. There was no noise, no semblance of a struggle, but the man in black, flowing into the stranger’s flesh, seemed to pass straight through him and come out the other side, all in one smooth motion.” The victim is left to slide to the ground and fold gently. The smitten Seaton finds Eddie in a bar drinking Dr Pepper’s. He quietly explains how he sees himself as a master craftsman and perfectionist; “Killing is for amateurs. Death is a profession…I’d like to think we are performers…Every act I commit, I render it with love.”

Seaton offers Eddie untold fame by taking Death to the screen and persuades him to move into his sprawling Hollywood mansion, which used to belong to silent screen siren Avril Orchid. Cohn beautifully captures the mansion’s decaying opulence, its heart-shaped fittings and perfumed gardens populated by exotic birds. The colossal pile also houses Seaton’s random selection of average American families, whose only task in return for full board and lodging is to watch TV from dawn to night then react accordingly. The programmes are usually bloody and brutal but have resulted in a string of ratings-topping blockbusters. “They are in love with mayhem,” remarks Eddie, with characteristic precision.

Seaton becomes Eddie’s manager and moves him into a single room. He doesn’t smoke or drink and only trains and practices sharp-shooting, spending the rest of his time lying quietly in his bare room. Seaton manages to clinch Eddie’s TV debut on a major network by positioning him as an ultimate patriot named King Death. After Eddie assassinates a political dissident obviously modelled on Che Guevara at a mass rally, reactions are initially negative. After more performances, Eddie is declared Public Enemy Number One but has become a cult hero to thousands by the time he is locked up in San Quentin after twelve network killings.
After mass pressure that includes a March on Washington, Eddie is released and allowed to continue his work for the good of the country. Eddie’s next phase sees him focussing on child murderers, sex criminals and bombers. He is now supported by a vast movement that spreads to over 300 chapters across the US and counts five million Loyalists. The King Death brand extends to canned peaches, gasmasks and records, along with King Death’s All America theme park. He dines at the White House (itself just shot of the disgraced Nixon in real life), voted American Of The Year and mobbed like a rock star. Over three thousand products carry his endorsement and his image graces over fifty thousand billboards. “Everything I am, America has made me,” says Eddie, tellingly.

Eddie reaches his messianic peak when Seaton creates the Deliverance Special, a spectacular train that travels from city to city for the next five years, enabling the clamouring public to see King Death in person, some to feel his fatal touch. ‘Meet The King’ becomes a phenomenon and, according to Seaton, “the greatest, best-loved and biggest-grossing spectacle that man has ever seen in the history of the world or showbiz.”
As with Johnny Angelo, King Death has to come crashing down, maybe to make the point that Death Doesn’t Pay. Eddie has long felt like traitor to his profession and misses Tupelo. He is plagued by nightmares and believes he is being followed everywhere by a demanding golden lion. He goes into a tail-spin after he discovers his first grey hair and lines appearing on his face. Like Johnny Angelo, the one foe he cannot vanquish is the ageing process. The lights dull in his eyes as his killings become sloppy and messy. He starts drinking, his apparel gets grubby and he even misses a shot. Even the TV families snap out of his hold and feel conned. With his magic deserted him, Eddie is now just a killer. Or, as he tells Seaton, “Everything that used to be pure and true had been perverted and you have turned me into scum.”

When Eddie thinks he is shooting the omnipresent and overbearing golden lion but it turns out to be a child fan, his reign and career collapse overnight and the Deliverance Special stormed by a lynch-mob. “My race is run,” says Eddie as Seaton drives him back to Tupelo one last time. He then performs his last act and shoots Seaton in the style that first mesmerised the TV mogul.

America had just lost the Vietnam war when this book appeared so the country’s self-esteem and patriotic morale were at a low ebb. A fantasised dark knight like Eddie would certainly have sorted out the human detritus and agitators the war had spawned. Although now 42 years old, King Death is still a startling indictment and also a foreshadow of our modern world today, predicting reality TV, violence as a sport, mass marketing, celebrity culture and brand sponsorship.

It would have made a great film – rather in the fashion of Cohn’s next major piece of writing, Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Nite for New York Magazine. Although Cohn had now relocated to the US, he based the piece on clubbers he’d encountered in the UK along with a visit to Bay Ridge curtailed by a drunken reveller spewing up on his trouser-leg. The main character was based on a Goldhawk Road mod he had known called Vincent. The feature would act as a blueprint for the era-defining Robert Stigwood produced Saturday Night Fever, a hugely influential film that catapulted John Travolta to fame as an icon of dancefloor cool.

Cohn’s early works and world deserve this reissue and re-examination. Above all, history itself has proved them clairvoyant masterpieces but it’s the writing itself that clinches their immortality.

  • KN