"I have no time to die!": η ζωή ως φίλος του απρόβλεπτου Nikki Sudden

Ο Stefan Schwerdtfeger των Big Sleep μάς έστειλε ένα δικό του κείμενο στα αγγλικά, με αναμνήσεις από τον Nikki Sudden των Swell Maps και των Jacobites, και εμείς το δημοσιεύουμε με χαρά! Ένα ταξίδι στη Θεσσαλονίκη και το Βερολίνο των '90s και των '00s σάς περιμένει...

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"It's better to play than not to play".

"If you didn't eat meat, you'd write much more songs".

"I don't have time to die".

These are things he said in my presence. I like to have them with me, like useful notes from a friend, on spiritual scraps of paper.

For quite a few years he used to visit me in Salonica in autumn and spring. This is a large harbour town in the north of Greece. He'd often come here in autumn, and then soon again in spring. And several summers did I spend in his apartment in Berlin-Kreuzberg. That then was in Ratiborstraße. One summer I even lived there alone. Nikki was playing in the Ukraine and other places.

Ratibor Str. when it rains outside, those high, clouded windows.

During these phases of living together, we also played little gigs, here in Thess, and also on excursions to the wild country side of Macedonia and Thessaly.

Then again, also in the Berlin summers, quite a few gigs popped up. At one point, I was even the official electric guitarist of the Last Bandits, at the album release concert bash of "Treasure Island".

I had met him and The Jacobites already in 1994, two years before I moved to Greece. It happened that with our band then, we had just celebrated the release of our second album "Moonlit Days". And on this Big Sleep album there was also a 13-minute version of "Where The Rivers End".

The next day, the Jacobites were playing in an underground youth barracks in northern Munich. And there I went early, and introduced myself to them at the catering buffet, sound-check just over. "Hello", I said, "I just covered a song of yours on an album..." —five heads turned simultaneously and they said in unison: "Which one?!".

From then on, I often spontaneously jumped in my car and drove to wherever they were playing in Germany. And my friends and me soon organised concerts for them in Munich and the surrounding area. On these occasions, they all used to live in our huge old country house, which was slowly sliding down the hill.  

Here in Salonica my apartment overlooks the city and the Thermaikos Bay, a majestic view all around. Even through the small windows in the kitchen and the bathroom you see the harbour cranes and the sea-glitter. Here we lived together many times. Phases of 10 days, or two to three weeks.

We'd walk downtown to shop on the open air market, filled Cretian red wine from the aluminium barrel right into our one-and-a-half liter plastic bottles. Carried everything up the hill, but often had the first wine testing pause already on the marble benches of upper Aristotelous square. This was due to my request, but he didn't mind. We sat there, sipped from the bulky bottles, smoked cigarettes. Looked at the world as it was on that day. Greek housewives going past us, up the hill, gypsy boys kicking a ball around. Russian men standing in groups, grandmothers offering black market cigarettes. Maybe an interesting girl here and there?

We played each other songs, often enough. What we had come up with lately. I usually played him what I had gathered since he had last been here. One song, "Girl In The Park", he saved from the garbage can, by adding one line ["hoping to get lost"] and telling me that this was a great song, one of the best I ever made.


He also played a lot of his songs. Always easily obliging when asked to play a few, and I really loved those moments, or afternoons.

He'd take the guitar, pretending for a moment he was gonna tune it, then shrugged impatiently and handed it to me. Then I tuned it. Made me feel good.

When he played, it usually felt like we enter a different realm of consciousness, some new form of space and time.

I could voice any request, and he'd bravely throw himself into it, even if he didn't really remember the chords, and the words not either, really. Often I then put on the record to find out which chords he had been playing. This was also the case with "Mafeking Blues", I remember, a song I covered with Big Sleep.

(When alone, this always used to be the last song I could listen to, at the end of the night when all other songs would not do anymore. The ultimate one).

Indeed, he told me that he had written and recorded this song in Italy in the 80s, for an obscure label, that later released 800 pieces of a vinyl album called "Crown Of Thorns". At the end of that session, he said, they had told him: "Look, if you just record one more song right on the spot -right now!-, we'll give you another 20 bucks, so you can go up to the street corner and buy some more smack".

And he just sat down with the guitar and dreamed it up that moment, he told me. Lifting his shoulders for a moment and grinning, happy about the whole incident!

Nikki tended to arrive at my apartment by taxi, straight from the airport, up the ring road, which goes high up behind and around the city, and then from the top (where the castle is) you turn off, and roll quite a few streets down, til you arrive in front of my building... And there he was, coming out of the elevator, suitcase and guitar and shoulder bag dangling, and his big 70s sunglasses, and moving a bit fast and hectic still, randomly throwing his things off in the blue room next to mine. And when I ask him:

"How was the flight?".

He says: "So boooring!" with real frustration and anger.

I remember at least one time when he appeared and said he'd need to sleep it off for a while. He'd had his last in Berlin and now he's on methadone and he also pulled out a duty free bottle of ouzo (of all things!), and while we test it on the balcony he tells me that he sometimes also likes to come here to escape the scene at Kottbusser Tor, and clean up a little, and that this for him is very easy, he just takes methadone for a day and a night and adds some drinks and then he sleeps for 12 hours or so. And then it's done and gone, no problem at all! He smiles at that, and is amused. Like he was a good sportsman, and just can't understand why everybody else seems to have an addiction problem.

It was quite a phase, those years when he would come here. They happened somewhere between 1996 and 2006. And they had their own phases, too. For a while I was playing in a student bar called "Carpe Diem"; he then also appeared there, basically wanting to play a good set with me, so he would deserve to drink his port for free. And anyway: It's better to play than not to play, don't you think?

Afterwards, we would probably continue to some local rock bars, especially one called "Residents", which also became a phase of its own one season. Since there was Sotiria there, the impressive, fashion fun girl and part owner, who kept him fascinated and well supplied with all she had to offer.

Then there were a time or three when he was here with Barbara, his possibly most long-term relationship. One summer in the 00s, they had come back from the island of Amorgos. It seems Nikki had become a little restless there. After their arrival I served them a classic plate of spaghetti with carrot, tomatoes, garlic and olive oil.

"Best thing I've eaten in Greece so far, on this trip", grumbles Nikki over his plate.

That August, after Barbara flew home, Nikki stayed on, and there was a row of good days with my cassettte recorder, which still stands on the refrigerator in the kitchen today. Mornings we would go down the hill to get our plastic bottles refilled and then the noons and afternoons we fooled around with the guitars... on the balcony, often enough... there were wine glasses and ash trays, paper and pen etc... He was developing a new series of songs that we all recorded on that little ghetto blaster in the harbour-view kitchen. "Pirate Girls" was among them, which later appeared on "Playing With Fire". (Two of those girls I had introduced him to). Also "Death Warrant", a long and, for me, magical song was at that time taking place and finding its shape. "The Last Flash Of The Cavalier Nation" he also finished then. And quite a few more. I think we had a list of 16 candidates eventually.

His guest-room here is painted light blue, there's a nice matress and a Greek kafeneion table and wooden chair (and an Ikea lamp and a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling). Through double glass doors the view goes out over the balcony and then into a panoramic view of the city and a wide expanse of sea reflecting light and weather. Mount Olympus is visible 80 kms across the water. Apart from that, the room was full of his stuff lying around everywhere, a real fine mess, no problem. Here he hacked a big part of his autobiography into the laptop. Kind of leaning back and letting his index-fingers fly. And on the next visit he completed the final draft.  

"Writing your biography is sooooo easy!" he told me. "You just take the stories you're already telling everyone all your life, and write them down!". 

(We still got puzzled at some point, because he had begun his book with four chapters about his childhood and school days and teachers and aunts etc. And I suggested it should start more dazzing and sensational. And so he wrote up that classical kind of scene where he wakes up in some beautiful slutty teenagers bed, the coke rests still on the glass table, and the empty whiskey bottles, and the make-up smeared sexy sweetheart lying next to him, whom he doesn't really remember so well, lying practically uncovered on messy sheets... And he wrote it immediately and it was all really good, but in the end we figured that that was also too cliché... and he was concerned that his mother Lois wouldn't be too amused and would probably worry about him even more).

When he made the list of names he wishes to thank at the end of the book, he also wrote "Stefan (my muse)". I felt honored, and a bit surprised.

"Why 'muse'?" I asked.

"Because you're the only one who criticises me!" he replied. "Like, you ask me why The Rolling Stones always have refrains and I don't!".

Well, that was funny. —I guess we were also connected on several other levels. I wouldn't be able to say wich ones. When I was with Nikki, the world was different. There was a vast sweeping feeling of freedom. Suddenly anything was possible.

How did it feel for him, who could say. Wherever he was, though, he was completely fulfilled by living the life of Nikki Sudden, of being Nikki Sudden.

"Did you see my move?" he asked me right after a solo performance of his (here at the Mylos Club in Thessaloniki). Somewhere before the last two songs he had jerkily jumped up a few centimeters, twisted his body inwards the tiniest bit, guitar clenched tight with both arms. Now he was a Nikki Sudden who also had a special move. That pleased him, he was proud.

He was Nikki Sudden all the time, even in small every day moments and gestures, like when he comes out of his sleeping room in the morning, barefoot, with thick glasses on, in a red bathrobe and asks: "Would you like a cup of tea, dear?".

He was also deeply British in an old fashioned way... —among many other things! He was also a French revolutionary and a Jacobite!

And took a lot of his identity from the model of Marc Bolan and Keith Richards... in most matters of life!

But there were also some English childhood idols that backed up his personal identity. Someone called "Biggles"? Some courageous, British flying hero, who cleverly survives and succeeds through many adventure novels?

And then there was his admiration for the manners and morals of the people living in the 17th and 18th century. How they were very gentle, graceful and elegant. The selfless heroism. The red wine, the poetry, the romantic era. How they would treat captured officers with utmost politeness. The candles and the silk scarves. And then the moral and consequence to also die in a duel for the adored female.

He devoured a series of books about an English officer named "Sharpe", written by one Bernard Cornwell. Nikki also went to several book signings of this favorite author of his. In a series of roughly 27 novels, Mr. Cornwell describes in minute detail the soldiers' lives and times, first during the British colonial wars in India, and then —mainly— during the Peninsula Wars between the English and the French (and quite a few other nations), which ended with the famous battle of Waterloo. These books have a touch of the trivial, but are very gripping plotwise, and they are like windows into another time.

And later he even went to see these historical battle sights in Belgium, with organised bus tours, can you believe it?!

He would also not leave the house unshaved. That wouldn't do, somehow. Nor without dressing himself in one of the many Nikki Sudden outfits. In his Berlin apartment, there was one room that contained only his suits and jackets. On two large, professional clothes stands that filled the room. All those paisley shirts, and gold-lame and what not.

I remember us sitting outside the wine-shop in Berlin, Kastanienallee, and then some girl walks by in front of us. Nikki does not approve of what she's wearing, and he extends his arm toward her with his fingers forming a gun, and he pantomimes shooting her: "Fashion Police, BANG!".

Once, on a longer evening around my writing desk in Thessaloniki, I even got him to paint. We had Din A 3 papers, ink and watercolors. He tried to refuse at first, declaring it useless, but finally he relented. And created a series of around 15 graphic pieces. Each one took him about 47 seconds. He hurriedly scratched some ink on a paper, often in a wild square or round form, then fast some different watercolors across, then maybe folded it twice in the middle, threw it on the floor, stomped on it, unfolded it, voila!...

The last time he was here must have been the autumn before his final U.S. trip. He arrived with an Australian girl called "Kip" (I think!). She always said "I reckon", and was generally a very fine company to have around. Not officially his girlfriend, was she on this visit. They had quite a few nights out til sun-up, somewhere towards the west of town in a more industrial area. Some kind of new clubs were suddenly opening there, and I didn't go with them. Something about their aura when they came back in the morning. Some pills involved, ecstasy, chemicals. But the mood was good. Fun was had. The sunlight was brilliant late summer.

I practically never saw him depressed. When things got difficult, for example with his girlfriend relationship or the sudden absence of money, he only became more hyper-active. And walked even faster. (Along sheer endless Berlin side-walks, let's say, frozen in ice, snow-flakes fluttering, on the way to the main post-office somewhere ahead).

Only once, though, during a long evening of red wine communication at my large wooden writing desk, he expressed a heavier sadness about the death of his brother Kevn (known as "Epic Soundtracks"). And I felt it. Something big, dark, heavy.  

Apart from that, he was completely enthralled in a life of being Nikki Sudden. And in that life there was so much to do!

He was also genuinely kind and helpful. Just to mention it once.

And so given to inspiration, so talented, that he found songs in places nobody else could have reached.

One day, in Berlin, his parents would come to visit. We cleaned the apartment, somewhat. They had given him a washing-machine as a present not long before. He found that remarkably kind of them, he was really grateful. He was looking forward to have Lois and Trevor near him for some days.

I remember the four of us sitting outside a Thai Restaurant, off Kastanienallee. It was a bit more pricey and exclusive, and we sat on cushioned bamboo chairs, late afternoon sun throwing rays of golden light. The conversation went here and there, not always flowing effortlessly. At one point Lois mentioned the loss of already one of her sons, and that she was always worried about Nikki.

"I have no time to die!" he retorted busily.

There he also explained that, yes, he wanted to get old. It sounded like he was looking forward to it. Like he had a picture of himself as an acomplished and distinguished British song-writing gentleman, who would still be putting out remarkably cool albums and generally enjoying his advanced age.

I was a bit surprised at hearing that, I couldn't imagine him looking like an old man with a guitar. Nor could I imagine myself like that.

And in the end it didn't happen like that.

I believe he came to earth to be Nikki Sudden, and nothing but. He WAS Nikki Sudden. All the time. It was as if he invented a complex persona of this travelling song-writing troubadour and rock'n'roll fantasy figure, and he slipped into it at the end of his childhood and henceforth was never anything outside of it.

And when I understood that he had died of a drug overdose, a miscalculated injection, in an apartment in New York, just some hours after the final solo concert of a U.S. tour... while the dawn was coming up behind the sky-scrapers... I thought: "Perfect, Nikki! Well done! Superb!".

There could not be a better way to complete a life of being Nikki Sudden. A masterpiece. I was proud of him and the fantastic life he had created.

A common friend phoned me then. She had spoken to the girl in who's apartment he was staying those last days. I heard: There was a plate on the kitchen table, with some slices of toast, and baked beans on them; and an open book next to it, one of those historical adventure novels he so much enjoyed.

He was gonna come again in spring. There's still a full box of his various CDs here, cellophane wrapped. He said they'd get too heavy, he'd leave them here, merchandise for the next time around.

While he was in America, I was scanning his blog on most days. But I was a bit slow in reading and answering my e-mails back then.  

Two days after his final departure from Earth I found an e-mail from Nikki

"See you in three weeks, Darling!".

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