Interview Howard Marks
Sam JT Butterworth meets the former dope baron turned writer, performer and Leeds resident before his show at City Varieties
Interview: Howard Marks
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As I chatted with Howard Marks, he was friendly, entertaining, genuine and erudite – qualities that remained throughout his show at the City Varieties. Later that evening the historic venue reverberated with his gravelly whisper as he told tales of decadent episodes, including one involving Nepalese hash that made everything either very funny, or yellow. He also mentioned the characters he met on his travels: Shane McGowan, the only man he saw being carried into a pub; Bez, the only man who could outdo Howard on any drug of his choice.
He talked about his seven-year prison stretch (“getting all my Sundays out of the way in one go”) and he explained how any plant that can kill you can also make you high: “It’s just a question of working out the dose.”
The audience was also treated to a bizarre PowerPoint presentation of demonic images to a backing track of Sympathy For The Devil, remixed by Back to Basics legend and friend of Howard’s, Dave Beer. This is to promote Howard’s new book and first fictional tale, which shares its name with the Stones’ song, and on the track the vocals come from Mr Nice himself, in his dulcet Welsh tones.
Of course, this show won’t be for everyone, and those offended by the idea of a former drug dealer making a living off the back of that career might be better off finding other entertainment. However, Howard Marks’ shows are simply a reflection of his life and the huge sales of his books illustrate just how interesting people find that. After all, it has been a remarkable trip.
Are you glad to be playing Leeds tonight?
Yeah, it’s my adopted home. I’ve had a flat here for over six years. I’m not here that much but I’m here more than anywhere else.
Do you prefer writing or performing?
I prefer writing, but since I’ve been performing so long, the two are interlinked. I am aware that whatever I write I might have to turn into a stage show.
And do you prefer the above-board career you have now to the less-than-above-board career you had before?
That’s a no [laughs].
Do you miss it?
Yeah, of course I miss it. It’d be inappropriate to crank it back up again – unless things get really tough! But I wouldn’t have a second’s pang of conscience.
Has it shocked you how famous your smuggling career made you?
Oh yeah. The hallmarks of a good dope dealer are being someone nobody knows and not getting caught. I must be the worst dope dealer on record. Every fucker knows who I am and I’ve been caught dozens of times.
How did you cope in prison?
It’s not as tragic as people make out. I was lucky because most of the time I was a foreigner so I didn’t have to have an allegiance to a particular gang. I’m not a very macho threat to anyone, plus I was about 40 with a pot belly so no one fancied me so I didn’t get gang raped.
Why did you open Azucar [the bar Howard co-owns in Leeds]?
Steve Hawkins [Howard’s business partner] asked me if I’d be interested and I said yeah. I’ve owned bars before but never run them and I quite like this way of keeping in touch with people.
What did you think of the movie [Mr Nice]? I read you always had Rhys Ifans in mind?
Well Rhys and I have been friends for years, we’re good friends. As far as I was concerned there was never any other choice. Although I got a bit worried that he was getting so big he might say no!
Are you happy with the finished product?
Oh yeah, completely.
Didn’t you meet at a Super Furry Animals gig?
Yes, it was. He used to be their vocalist before they became good! When I met him he was sleeping on the drummer’s floor, trying to become an actor.
And you appear on the front cover of the Fuzzy Logic album by Super Furry Animals.
That’s right, I was, and one track is called Hanging With Howard Marks, which I think helped get my book across to the minds of young people. I blame them for my corrupting of youth.
Howard Marks performed at City Varieties on 25th October
Azucar, 5 Brewery Place, LS10 1NE, 0113 243 5761, www.azucarbar.co.uk
Posted on Wednesday 16th November 2011
5 Brewery Place, Leeds, LS10 1NE
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