BY FRED MILLS
Celebrity memoirs, almost across the board, tend to be hideously self-serving (such is the nature of the beast). Yet we not only tolerate but encourage them, we the crumb-gobbling public, in hopes of some tawdry, tasty morsels upon which to dine until the next partial tell-all arrives. Musicians are not exempt from this ritual either—in fact, they sometimes are the guiltiest of authors, literally rewriting history before our eyes despite all prior evidence as they seek to justify all wrongs previously wrought from their egomaniacal selves. That nasty band breakup? “It was the lead singer’s fault, not mine!” That third stint in rehab? “Because I had finally found serendipity, not because I was trying to avoid incarceration!” The failed solo career, leading to a reunion with the old bandmates? “It was purely for the fans, not because I had alimony and mortgage payments!” This book you are presently reading? “To get it all down on the record for posterity, not merely for the publisher’s advance!”
Meet Richard “Snakehips” Dudanski, aka Richard Nother, whose Squat City Rocks is pretty much the antithesis of all the above. Having endured my fair share of self-serving literary rot over the years, I think I’ve developed a pretty good instinct about these endeavors, and this self-published 236-page tome hits me in right in the sweet spot. Subtitled “Proto-punk and beyond, a musical memoir from the margins,” it’s exactly that, a tale (or, as Dudanski wittily capitalizes it, a Tale) about a life well-lived as a rock star—but minus the “star” part of that equation.
Clash and Joe Strummer devotees already know the Dudanski surname: he was the drummer in Joe’s legendary pre-Clash pub-rock outfit The 101ers, whose “Keys To Your Heart” single, released in 1976 by the seminal punk label Chiswick, was a staple of many a punk/new wave record collector’s collection. Their lone album Elgin Avenue Breakdown, released long after their demise and subsequently reissued in expanded form following Joe’s death in 1992, is a ragged but right portrait of a young group blessed with a genuine spark and outsized personality. (In a stroke of master timing, Elgin Avenue Breakdown is getting reissued for Record Store Day this year, April 19, as a limited edition, double vinyl LP set.)
Others will recognize Dudanski from his short-lived (but noteworthy) stint in John Lydon’s Public Image Limited circa Metal Box, dub-punk savants Basement 5, the Raincoats, and Tymon Dogg & The Fools. More recently he’s held down the kit for his unassuming but highly recommended group El Doghouse.
Squat City Rocks will resonate among music fans for a number of reasons, chief among them Dudanski’s unique ability to recall and contextualize events of up to four decades earlier, providing an invaluable history lesson while also painting a vivid behind the scenes portrait of the London punk and post-punk eras. Roughly half the book is in fact devoted to his 101ers days—including events leading up to the formation of the band, accompanied by a vivid portrait of the communal squatter culture so prevalent in England during the early and mid ‘70s—so there’s plenty of Joe to go round, fellow Strummerphiles. The subsequent period working with violinist Tymon Dogg amounts to a previously untold hidden-chapter-of-rock of sorts, while getting to read Dudanski’s version of events that led to him being pushed out of PiL seems to finally right a few wrongs in the journalistic record. And his Basement 5 days, most likely familiar only to folks in Britain, provide a lively narrative in the hands of Dudanski’s wry reportage. (There’s a hilarious passage in which Dudanski relates how he was unceremoniously removed from the recording credits to a PiL album but somehow added to the credits of a B5 album when in fact it was another drummer who played on the sessions!)
Residing at the emotional core of the book, though, is Dudanski’s deep love for Joe Strummer. (Well, Joe, along with Dudanski’s wife of many years and two children, both of whom are active in music and the arts, much to their parents’ delight.) A neighbor of Dudanski’s from a fellow squat, Joe—originally called Woody; the iconic nickname would come, along with Dudanski’s “Snakehips” moniker, in a fit of the bandmembers’ desire for suitably rock ‘n’ rollish noms du rawk—came into the fold with a modicum of talent and a boatload of enthusiasm, and soon enough the nascent 101ers were holding down a weeknight residency at a nearby pub. It wasn’t to last, of course, although while Dudanski expresses obvious hurt at Joe’s eventual defection to the Clash, he attributes the decision more to the Machiavellian machinations of Clash manager Bernie Rhodes than any deep-rooted desires upon Joe’s part to be a pop star. And he also recognizes the fact that had the 101ers not formed, Joe of course becoming the key member and main songwriter, Dudanski might never have embarked upon a life in music.
Dudanski’s respect for Joe as a genuine, honest and caring individual comes through loud and clear towards the end of the book when they find themselves back into one another’s social orbits. Their friendship had apparently struck deep, and they were able to enjoy some good times together once again until that fateful morning in December of 2002 when he received a phone call informing him of Joe’s sudden death. Resolving to give the singer a proper farewell, Dudanski helps organize a pair of tribute concerts, one back in their old London neighborhood and another in Granada, Spain. It’s hard not to get misty-eyed while reading this portion of the book: those sendoffs were true rock ‘n’ roll wakes of rich proportions, with friends and musicians from all stages of Joe’s career taking the stage to perform signature tunes.
“There was something special in the air that night that even the dreadful sound quality of the PA couldn’t extinguish,” he writes, of the Granada gathering. “Our set was a pretty ramshackle affair, but a slick performance had never been the intention, and I know Joe would have absolutely loved it if he had been there: it was right up his street.”
At the end of the book Dudanski reflects upon the path he took, soberly noting that he “can be seen either as a failed rock muso who didn’t make the most of the various opportunities offered; or as a privileged individual who has lived an interesting life full of variety and freedom… I live in a city and country [Spain] that I adore, have friends and family of which I could not ask more, and a drum kit (when not out and about) standing sturdy on my living room floor.”
The latter rhyming scheme seems perfectly poetic in more ways than one. Who could ask for more, indeed.