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A little respect: paying tribute to a great queer writer, Richard Smith

Queer journalist, author and former Gay Times associate editor Richard Smith passed away recently. His friend Peter Robinson pays tribute to the Fagburn writer.

Richard Smith was hard work, extremely rude and for reasons too complicated to go into here thought the people who used to run Gay Times were a bunch of cunts. He was also endlessly funny, fiercely kind, one of his generation’s most talented and expressive music writers and a fearless and unswervingly principled advocate for the notion that the gays should be able to just get on with their bloody lives thanks very much.

“Pop music’s a bit like boys,” is how he kicked off the introduction to his 1995 book Seduced & Abandoned, which collected some of his best music interviews and essays from Gay Times and elsewhere. “I mean, I just really, really love it. Let me tell you some of the stuff that I love.” What came next was a single paragraph that spanned four pages — a sprawling catalogue of pop, passion and personality. The stuff he loved included “the time Granny Smith told me her favourite record was I Will Survive”, along with “me being 15 and putting on Smalltown Boy and just crying and crying”, “the time I started rushing on my first E at Shame”, “thinking about Kurt Cobain”, and “being twenty-fucking-seven and still having a poster of Madonna over my bed”, along with dozens of other recollections. “I could go on,” the paragraph concluded. “I could go on forever.”

Whether writing for Gay Times, Melody Maker, the Guardian or in any of the other places his words landed, he captured and made sense of the outsider spirit…

Anyway, let me tell you some of the stuff that I loved about Richard Smith.

His box of 7” singles. Hearing Armand Van Helden’s remix of Tori Amos’ Professional Widow for the first time in a club, but Richard wanting to sit down and talk about Macarena instead. How one interview with Erasure (during which Richard inserted a massive “zzzzzzz” in the middle of a particularly dull Andy Bell quote) led to the band’s label pulling all advertising from Gay Times. The unique way — as you’d expect from someone who idolised Noam Chomsky and Smash Hits in equal measure — Richard approached both life and the way he wrote about it. His infuriating but warm, but mainly infuriating habit of calling me Peewee. The time a friend’s handbag was snatched from a bar, and while the best the rest of us could do was stand around going “oh, it looks like someone just stole that bag”, Richard’s instinctive response was to sprint out of the building; he reappeared fifteen minutes later having cornered the thief and retrieved the bag. The sight of Richard on a Sunday morning comedown clutching his head in despair while a landlord beat pigeons to death with a massive stick in the back garden. The time Joe Orton’s old flat came up for sale and Richard took my girlfriend for a snoop around. How Richard found a way to sidestep the narcissistic pitfalls that snare most journalists while also writing deeply personal accounts of love, music, culture and gay life. The time he was sick on stage at G-A-Y. His obsession with The Fall. The suspicion that he must have been responsible for at least half of all south coast charity shop transactions since the early 1990s. How in so many photographs he seemed to be pointing at something for no reason. The rush of accomplishment when you made him laugh. The unnerving way it was impossible to look anywhere in his flat without making eye contact with at least one Bart Simpson. His plan to steal a lifesize cardboard Benny from an ABBA book launch. The terms and conditions on his Fagburn blog: “If you think I’ve written something which is — legal term coming up — a bit out-of-order, just let me know. I’m quite nice really.” I could go on forever.

I met Richard by accident approximately one million years ago. Well, it was 1996. I’d moved to Brighton for university and during the first year someone showed me the obituary of a writer who’d been a friend and something of a mentor. I wrote to that obituary’s author — a guy called Peter Burton who I hadn’t heard of before, to say hi. When Peter replied it was with an invitation to his house for lunch; a couple of bottles of wine into that lunch we heard keys in the front door and Peter said: “Oh, do you know Richard Smith?”

I’d already read Seduced & Abandoned so I felt like I did, but in the weeks, years and, bloody hell, the decades that followed I’d get to know Richard Smith very well indeed. In the early days he took me clubbing in Brighton: sometimes to shirts-off enormoclub Wild Fruit, more often to miniature pop-cabaret shambles Dynamite Boogaloo, where he played a warmup slot under the DJ Wanker moniker he later used when co-founding electroclash night Fuck The Pain Away. We’d hit London, too, for Popstarz and Duckie.

But it wasn’t all about getting off our tits at every opportunity. Among other things I learned how significant it was that long before Richard had taken up residence in Peter Burton’s spare room, Burton had been one of the founding fathers of gay media in the 1960s, when the world was a very different place, nothing could be taken for granted, and gay journalism was important and necessary in a very different way to how it felt in 1997, let alone 2017.

It quickly started to make sense to me how this spirit — the idea that writing had to have a point — ran with such intensity through Richard’s own work, no matter how supposedly frivolous the subject matter. It felt like Richard could effortlessly explain how everything meant something.

Whether writing for Gay Times, Melody Maker, the Guardian or in any of the other places his words landed, he captured and made sense of the outsider spirit, while being as direct and honest in his writing as he was in conversation. He was an original thinker who called out hypocrisy, railed against mawkish sentimentality (I suspect he’d have had one or two thoughts about this little stroll down memory lane), and took a strongly principled line on almost everything. It was an approach that cost him work — not least with Gay Times. But it earned him respect, sometimes a little grudging, from his peers, as well as his friends and a new generation of readers who got to know him through pithy and acerbic blog Fagburn.

He didn’t end up stealing that Benny cutout from the ABBA book launch, by the way. But he did leave, then re-enter, then leave again three times in a row, collecting a promotional goodie bag each time. A bit out-of-order, perhaps, but he was quite nice really.

Words Peter Robinson

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