Interview: Punk Biographer John Wombat

The writer & musician talks about his books on Brian James, Ron Asheton, Bryan Gregory and Johnny Thunders.

Writer and musician John Wombat.

John Wombat is a writer and musician. He lives in the UK with his wife, artist and writer, Ruth Moreira and their young daughter. In June 2018 John released his first book, The Cramps, Beast & Beyond: A Book About Bryan Gregory. His second book, Ron Asheton: The Stooges, Destroy All Monsters & Beyond, co-authored with Ruth, a biography of Stooges’ guitarist Ron Asheton, was released in January 2019. John’s third book, The New York Dolls, The Heartbreakers, The Oddballs & More: A Book About Johnny Thunders, was released in May 2019. Bastard, The Damned, The Lords of the New Church & More: The Authorised Biography of Brian James was published 21 September 2019.

Hi, John. Thanks for chatting with We Are Cult. Tell your readers a little bit about yourself?

I grew up in Northumberland, living in various towns there, and eventually met and married Ruth, my wife, in 2006. Our daughter was born in 2007. We moved to Wiltshire in 2012 and moved to South Wales last year. We had been drawn to both the dramatic landscape and lower house prices on a previous holiday, it has given us more space to explore our interests.

Prior to writing and publishing your first book (The Cramps, Beast & Beyond: A Book About Bryan Gregory), how did you sharpen your prose style?

I started writing a couple of years ago at 34. I’ve long been an avid reader, including musician biographies/ autobiographies, and fiction. The process of writing didn’t feel alien to me, and I think the organisational aspects have got easier with each book. I’ve never written magazine articles, though I’d be happy to. I do maintain a blog based on my interviews with musicians, which I enjoy doing. My writing to date has been centred on my own projects.

I must mention Ruth Moreira here. She assists me with each book, indeed she co-wrote my biography of Ron Asheton. Ruth has also painted the cover portraits for two of my books, my biographies of Bryan Gregory and Johnny Thunders.

Can you tell us a bit about ‘The Cramps, Beast & Beyond: A Book About Bryan Gregory and its journey from conception to publication in 2018? What was the initial trigger for you to start work on it?

My interest in Bryan Gregory started things, and got me set on a more exciting path, because there wasn’t a book to read about him, and I felt there should be. Once that book was underway, I thought of others I wanted to do. Bryan Gregory is such an under-appreciated musician and artist. As much as I love Lux and Ivy, I don’t think the Cramps would have made the same early impact had Bryan not been there. Further to this, so many untrue stories and myths have existed for so long, I wanted to dispel them, Bryan was not an ill-read junkie who stole the Cramps’ equipment.

Your subjects are all punk legends whose made their name in bands whose legacies are swathed in layers of myth-making with the passage of time, and you’ve been keen to sort the men from the enigma and publicity – how have you gone about that? 

Talking to people who knew the actual person and not relying on second and third hand ‘recollections’ is best. In the case of my biography of Brian James, I had the advantage of speaking with the subject directly. Research is very important if you are to produce a factual piece of work.

Your second biography ‘Ron Asheton: The Stooges, Destroy All Monsters & Beyond’ came hot on the heels of ‘The Cramps, Beast & Beyond’; you must have started work on the Asheton biography before the ink had dried on The Cramps, Beast & Beyond! When did the second book originally take seed?

Straight after the book on Bryan Gregory!

Despite being a founder member of a vitally important band, the Stooges’ Ron Asheton enjoyed a much lower profile and it’s clear from the book that you reached out to a lot of his friends, colleagues and neighbours to fill in the various gaps between his bursts of activity… Tell us a little about that?

Most people were helpful and generous with their time and contributions. People that were especially open and supportive were Deniz Tek, Colonel and Niagara, Hiawatha Bailey, Sue Rynski… I really enjoyed talking to people outside of the music circle too, those from the Michigan film scene.

You co-wrote ‘Ron Asheton: The Stooges, Destroy All Monsters & Beyond’ with your partner, Ruth, who had also created the cover art for your books – tell us a bit about that?

My wife Ruth assists me with each book, the value of her work cannot be overstated. It’s good to work with Ruth as it offers a fresh perspective, a fresh set of eyes too! Ruth is an artist, she has painted portraits of several musicians, such as Lux and Ivy, Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer and, of course, Bryan Gregory and Johnny Thunders. She has also produced portraits of a number of classic British TV characters and actors, such as Rigsby, Tony Hancock, Hilda Ogden, Alf Garnet, Captain Mainwaring, characters that appeal to her.

Your third book, ‘The New York Dolls, The Heartbreakers, The Oddballs & More: A Book About Johnny Thunders’, was released in May 2019. Of all the four musicians you’ve written about, it’s fair to say that Thunders is probably the one most cloaked in mythology due to his young death, iconic punk pin-up status and the amount of mystique and folklore surrounding the New York Dolls and Heartbreakers as iconic bands… What were your main sources, were you able to speak to many people who knew the ‘real’ Johnny?

There are many myths around Johnny Thunders. It goes without saying that Johnny was no boy scout, however he was much more than just some junkie rocker. He was an incredible musician and songwriter, one that has inspired generations. I spoke to many people when writing this book, people that were especially helpful were Philippe Marcade, Danny Bracken, Chris Musto, Stuart Kennedy, Stevie Klasson, Lotten Sunna, Toril Tee…

What’s been the most memorable, unusual or funny thing that’s happened while you’ve been writing these biographies?

Sharing the stage with Brian James at the book launch of his biography was the most amazing experience. Playing guitar on New Rose, which is one of my all-time favourite songs from one of my all-time favourite guitarists, was fantastic. Though I was incredibly nervous.

Another memorable moment is having the opportunity to play the 1964 Humming Bird guitar that Keith Richards gifted to the Dirty Strangers’ Alan Clayton.

Chatting to Dave Davies of the Kinks was very cool!

During my time working on the different books I’ve also had the chance to hear some unreleased recordings of some of my subjects, the most exciting being that of Brian James and Bryan Gregory.

What’s been the response to your books from fans, reviewers and friends of your subjects? Have you received any positive feedback that’s been particularly rewarding for you?

We Are Cult’s review of my Ron Asheton biography is one that I really like, also the Mojo review of my Ron book. My biography of Brian James has seen the biggest and most enthusiastic response from fans and critics alike, it was really cool to see the book reviewed in Vive Le Rock.

Your current book ‘Bastard, The Damned, The Lords of the New Church & More’ is a bit different to the ones which precede it, as its subject is very much alive and kicking – and indeed the book is proudly subtitled, ‘The Authorised Biography of Brian James’. Firstly, what was your main motivation in telling Brian’s story, and at what stage did Brian come on board?

It was during the writing of my biography of Johnny Thunders that I came to know Brian. We got talking and the idea of a Brian James biography came up. Brian was on board from the very beginning. Both Brian and his wife Minna were incredibly kind and generous with their time and contributions, I remain incredibly grateful. With regards to motivations for the book, Brian is one of my favourite guitarists. But more than this, I thought it was criminal that the man responsible for writing the UK’s first ever punk single, New Rose, and writing almost entirely the UK’s first ever punk album, Damned, Damned, Damned, was not getting the recognition he deserved. This is a man that formed the Damned, formed the Lords of the New Church, played with Iggy Pop, Wayne Kramer, Stewart Copeland… His achievements are extensive but were not widely appreciated. I hope the book is going some way to put this right.

PuNk It uP! Presents: Brian James (Ex Damned) promotes his new biography with John Wombat at Rough Trade Nottingham. Photo © Stephanie Webb Photography.

Can you tell us a little about Brian’s involvement in the biography, was there a lot of discussions, did his endorsement open any doors for you during the writing and research?

Brian definitely opened doors for me. He isn’t the sort of person that would agree to something that he’s not behind, so his endorsement meant a lot. He answered any questions I asked but had no part of the writing process itself. He did make sure that all the chronology was in order. I should add, Brian has been writing his own book for a number of years, his Bleedin’ Book, which should be released at some point in the future I believe, along with a record of previously unreleased and rare Brian James material.

The book was launched with an event at the Troubadour that included Brian and his band performing a live gig – as a lifelong fan, that must have been a special moment? The icing on the cake as it were!

This was the best part of the night for me, an unforgettable experience, truly honoured that Brian invited me on stage.

What’s next for you, John? Do you have another rock biog in the pipeline or any other upcoming projects you can tell our readers about?

I will be announcing full details very soon. I’m currently working on an authorised biography of Jayne County, and there’s an authorised biography of Alan Clayton well underway. In addition, there are two other books in the pipeline, but I can’t say anymore at this point.

Thanks for your time, John!

❉ ‘Bastard, The Damned, The Lords Of The New Church & More: The Authorised Biography Of Brian James’ is out now. Available via Amazon 

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 James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult, and is the co-editor of Me and the Starman, (Chinbeard Books, 2019) Available in paperback from Amazon: All profits from this book go toward supporting the work of Cancer Research UK.

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