Dandy in the Underworld
John Pearse, a most artistic tailor who enjoys my custom, has his shop on Meard Street, a quaint byway in London's Soho now restricted to pedestrian traffic. On one of my visits I noticed an interesting sign on the front door of the house across the way: THIS IS NOT A BROTHEL. THERE ARE NO PROSTITUTES AT THIS ADDRESS. I asked John about the sign and in his weary and sketchy way he explained that there was an eccentric fellow living there whose rather unconventional “lifestyle” might have led to some misunderstandings.
Here is Pearse by the door.
Since Soho is one of those neighborhoods (the sort we don’t have anymore in New York) where a harmless skin trade takes place routinely alongside more conventional industries, I didn’t think much more of it until I was browsing through “The Affected Provincial’s Almanack,” the excellent blog by Lord Whimsy that I dealt with in my last entry here, and I came upon some YouTube film clips of one Sebastian Horsley speaking on music, sex, drugs, death, dandyism, and his book, Dandy in the Underworld. Yes, that is Horsley’s door opposite John’s shop. I confirmed it with John, who also confirmed that he had put special hypodermic syringe pockets in Horsely’s jackets. Naturally I immediately ordered the book.
Those clips are riveting entertainment. No? There is so little genuine outrageousness (or sense of outrage) these days that Mr. Horsely’s casual asides are as warming as a slap in the face followed by a nice cup of PG Tips. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of this fellow before, although I dimly recalled hearing of an Englishman journeying to the Philippines to be crucified on Good Friday, as extremist young male Jesus enthusiasts there are wont to do (too riveting, that video), but I wasn’t familiar with this very amusing character. (I began to realize that I have not been spending nearly enough time in England. I have to get rich or the dollar has to perk up.) The occasional club crawl should have crossed his trail long ago.
Anyway, Horsley is the genuine article; he is a real phony, and the story of his life is far better than anything made up. He is the perfect example of someone whose extravagant pose has become an undeniable, organic reality. The harrowingly hilarious Dandy in the Underworld is billed as an "unauthorized autobiography." Clever, but Ray Davies did it first with his fictionalized confessions X-Ray. Yet Horsley’s book is much more than that; it is a saga among the annals of self-indulgence. Dandy stands on its own, even as it stumbles, trips, and freefalls through the wreckage of his precarious life.
Here’s Horsley in his book jacket photo.
Mr. Horsley comes from a family of wealthy degenerates and his story, especially his childhood, I suppose, would be painful to follow if his view of it were not so funny. I put a lot of stock in opening sentences. How’s this? “When Mother found out she was pregnant with me she took an overdose. Father gave her the pills.” Horsley is born, nevertheless, and he concludes: “I was so appalled I couldn’t talk for two years.” There begins a great love affair with himself that continues today, and an adventure that encompasses careers as vandal, punk rocker, art student, kept catamite of a convicted murderer, parachutist, husband, homosexual, heterosexual, alcoholic, crackhead, junkie, prostitute addict, male prostitute, shark aficionado, sex columnist, lie-about, self-publicist, and painter. Horsley’s life has had so many low points that it doesn’t surprise that he is a failed suicide, and yet he has this fantastic way of picking himself up out of the gutter (perhaps by the huge points on his Turnbull and Asser “Horsley shirts,”) that I came to admire his heroic resilience.
Incidentally, the title of this book is taken from Mr. Horsley’s first hero, Marc Bolan, whose final album was entitled Dandy in the Underworld. Interestingly (mildly), T.Rex’s twelfth album was released on March 11th, 1977, and thirty-one years from that date Dandy in the Underworld’s American edition will be released. No reason to wait. I recommend the English edition, which can be had speedily from Amazon and the like, and usually British editions have better covers. I recommend hardcover because chances are you will drop it while laughing. Anyway, Bolan was a profound influence on Horsley, who in fact resembles Adam Ant, and Dandy was a fitting final testament from Bolan, who died six months later when a Mini he was riding in struck a sycamore tree.
Now his lovers have left him / And his youth's ill spent / He cries in the dungeons and tries to repent / But change is a monster and changing is hard / But he'll freeze away his summers in his / Underground yard
Yes, Horsley is intimately familiar with the monstrous, and he has undergone more changes than most Hindus do in a cycle of lifetimes, but this is precisely the nature of his possible and deeply flawed greatness. I believe there is a considerable romantic heart behind the fabulously baroque bluster and arch wit Horsley seems to generate without effort. His vision is dark (well, darkish) and he may easily be accused of cynicism, but I find his cynicism classical and redeeming, and this is a fellow who has a lot of redeeming to do. He is not cruel; he is kind, and if it is mainly to himself, well, that’s a start. Like anyone who steps on a cross voluntarily, he would be a redeemer if he could, and I believe his sentences do the redeeming for him. Rarely one encounters such a treasury of bon mots.
"Style is when they’re running you out of town and you make it look like you’re leading the parade," is actually on the same page as, "If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there."
Although Horsley seems currently to abstain enough to get things done, he is not a quitter in the fashionable sense. He revels in sex, drugs, and I suppose rock and roll with heroic resolve and fantastical relish despite the disasters that bring him low again and again. And somehow that tarnished enthusiasm seems more sane or at least more glorious than a dozen highly-recommended steps precisely taken. Seems is the keyword, I suppose, but I can’t help but be taken by sentiments such as “Sex is just a sublimation of drug addiction.” And, “I remember the first time I had real sex—I still have the receipt.”
Lest I spoil the ending, I’ll leave the rest to Horsley. He’s so good at the last word.