Sebastian Horsley: Requiem for a Dandy
The extreme artist and writer, who died of a heroin and cocaine overdose on this day in 2010, corresponded with me throughout his final years. He was unforgettable.
“All the interesting people that have ever been born are drunks or junkies. We are sensationalists of the strange. We know that any view of things that is not strange is false. Such a man is a harp that lacks a bass string. If an artist denies the dark side he will end up looking like Hockney, reading like Wordsworth and sounding like Vivaldi.”
—Sebastian Horsley, email to the author, January 22, 2009
When Sebastian Horsley—dandy, memoirist and enfant terrible of the British art scene—died of an overdose four years ago, many felt that Soho’s fetid heart stopped beating along with his. London’s Soho, that wonderful, scabrous playground of strip clubs, penny arcades, all-night coffee shops, brothels and back alleys, has inspired generations of artists. But none were more associated with its amyl-and-piss-soaked back pages than Sebastian, the original Dandy in the Underworld.
In the days when it was his playground, if you flitted through Soho’s immodest streets for long enough, you were likely to run into Sebastian. It was hard to miss him: He was six-foot-something and in the habit of boosting his imposing frame with high-heeled Chelsea boots or a flamboyant top hat. An aficionado of bespoke suits, he favored eye-catching hues like salmon pink or powder blue. People often stopped to do a double take when he breezed by. In this age of anti-fashion conformity, Sebastian looked as though he had dropped in from another planet.
I first encountered him in the dour setting of a Soho Narcotics Anonymous meeting in the spring of 2000. I had recently washed ashore from Los Angeles and was in desperate need of a heroin connection. Whenever I’m in a new city and crave drugs, I let my fingers do the walking and head for the nearest 12-step meeting. After all, to find drugs you need to find junkies—where better?
I didn’t find my heroin connection at that meeting, but I did encounter Sebastian. He was dressed in one of his Saville Row pink suits and top hat, and even before he spoke, he commanded the attention of the entire meeting by simply being there. When he raised his hand to share, an expectant silence fell over the room.
He was fresh off a relapse. He complained to the group that he found the 12 Steps “incredibly dull,” and expressed a desire to “smoke a rock of crack the size of the Ritz.” When this elicited nervous giggles from the gathering, the subject turned to his art. He talked abstractedly about the “work” he was planning. It was obviously something that he had spoken of before, because everybody in the room seemed united in their opinion that it was a simply terrible idea. The meeting chair tried to convince him to forget about his art for a while: “I don’t think that this…project would be in any way helpful to your recovery, Sebastian,” he protested.
Sebastian sniffed and looked about the room dramatically. “If art is an intoxication,” he declared, “then I shall carry on using and abusing. I shall not become a recovering artoholic.”
I watched his performance, spellbound. When the meeting was over I drifted away, after a long internal debate about whether or not to approach this strange creature. In the end I decided against it. In my bedraggled state Horsley intimidated me. Even looking at him seemed painful, like looking directly at the sun.
“I shall not become a recovering artoholic.” I turned the phrase over and over in my mind. Who on earth was this person?
That meeting was my last encounter with Sebastian Horsley for almost eight years. Despite the protests of the Soho NA group, he did go through with his mysterious “project.” I found out later, when British tabloid coverage made media ripples around Europe, that he had gone to the Philippines later that year—where he was filmed being crucified. This was in preparation for a series of paintings on the subject of the crucifixion. He would later recount the experience in his acclaimed 2007 memoir, Dandy in the Underworld:
“By the time the second nail was going in, I was already falling unconscious. My eyes were filled with tears as they raised the cross. I think I passed out and then came to again. I gratefully recognized the warm flood of endorphins. Sounds twisted all around me, then faded, then cut out, then came back in again, rising and falling in spirals that twined around my head like wreaths of fluttering angels. The cross was upright. I gazed out into space. There was nothing. Just the light on the water. Just the endlessness of the air. I was so small. I was pinned like an insect between two eternities, between the infinity of the lake and the infinity of the sky…”
It was Carrie Kania, who ran Harper Perennial [publisher of my novel Down and Out on Murder Mile], who brought us back together. Perennial were just about to publish Dandy in the Underworld and she thought we would like each other. “We bought the book on the strength of the opening paragraph,” Carrie told me. She proceeded to recite it from memory:
“When mother found out she was pregnant with me she took an overdose. Father gave her the pills. She needed a drama from time to time to remind her that she was still alive. The overdose didn’t work. Had she known I would turn out like this, she would have taken cyanide.”
When she handed me the book I stared at the strange, familiar creature on the cover. Hello again. The alien I had first encountered in that NA meeting had re-entered my life. I sent him a copy of my book. And from that moment, we kept a steady correspondence that lasted until three days before his death.
In his native England, Horsley was often the target of real animosity. His outspoken declarations about his sexual exploits with people of both genders riled both homophobes and the PC crowd. Feminists recoiled at what they perceived as his misogyny, and many were rankled by his public hymns to the joys of prostitutes. In 2006 he was famously fired as a columnist by The Observer, a national newspaper, after waxing lyrical about anal sex in a piece published on Easter Sunday. And of course there was his open enjoyment of hard drugs. He wrote to me in an email dated April 28, 2010: “Heroin is the only thing that really works, the only thing that stops you scampering around in a hamster’s wheel of unanswerable questions.”
It feels strange to write about Sebastian again. The first time I covered his work was when I interviewed him for S Magazine in 2008, when he was due to begin the Dandy in the Underworld book tour in New York. Shame was an alien concept to Sebastian. One of his opening gambits in our conversation was to ask, “Have you ever injected pure cocaine into your knob while getting it sucked by an experienced whore?”
I answered in the negative. “Well, you should.”
This was the book tour that was infamously halted before it began—when Sebastian was turned back by US customs on the grounds of “moral turpitude.” The story goes that Sebastian called Carrie from a holding cell in Newark airport, prior to being shuttled back to London. “There’s good news and bad news,” he told her. “The good news is that they’ve read the book. The bad news is…they’ve read the book.”
The next time I wrote about him was in the days following his death, for 3:am Magazine: “Sebastian was a true original, a character and someone who truly didn’t give a fuck. I hope that some of his spirit lives on through his work, and through the people whose lives he touched,” I wrote. “We need people like Sebastian now more than ever.” And I believe that now just as much as I did then.
As an IV drug user you learn to accept death, expect it even. Still, I cried when I heard Sebastian was dead. I’ve never stopped feeling guilty that I never returned his final email, when he wrote to tell me about seeing the premier of the play based on his memoir at London’s Soho Theatre. It had been a disconcerting experience for him, and he mentioned that he had been using again:
“This play thing is weird. I have a smidgen of infamy, that’s all. It is curious: It is confusing and odd and strangely unsatisfying. You think it will save you from yourself but of course it doesn’t. Been bingeing/on off with gear and crack. Got a week off and then I was walking down the street when the play came out and everyone was looking at me and pointing. A black guy from the audience came over and introduced himself and put some pink crack in my hand as a gift. So I’ve been on for a couple of days. Want to get off though so I can enjoy this odd time.”
Should I have warned him off? The absurdity of the thought makes me smile as I type it. That wasn’t how our friendship worked. We bonded over a shared love of narcotics. Anyway, Sebastian was one of those rare people in whom heroin inspired not wretchedness, but poetry.
A few weeks earlier, describing a shot of pharmaceutical heroin he had just injected, he had written:
“Heroin is the cavalry. Heroin is the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of my skull, and wrapped itself darkly around my nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favorite cushion. It is as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm.
“On drugs you know you’re happy. Heroin easily makes do without people. Out of almost nothing it creates a presence. It gives the gift of life. It imparts depth and beauty to all, drawing it together, providing atmosphere, charm and intimacy with all the palpitations of life. It creates an illusion. It creates the illusion.”
Who could say stop after reading that? It would have been like handing Charles Bukowski an O’Doul’s.
Four years after his death, I still get sentimental when I hear the T. Rex song Cosmic Dancer, a longtime favorite of Sebastian’s. From time to time I pull up those old emails and read through them, marveling at their easy poetry, smiling as if reading them for the first time.
The last email he wrote to me, dated June 11, 2010, is one of my favorites. It was long, and detailed his conflicted thoughts about the play and the reception it had received in the press. But it was the way he ended the email that threw me; it seemed unusually sentimental for Sebastian:
“You’re a writer and stylist. You keep doing it. You are on the side of the angels. Angels fly because they take themselves lightly. My Love dear Tony…”
The tone of his sign-off took me by surprise. Instead of replying straight away, I decided to wait until I had the opportunity to write something more considered. Of course that opportunity never came.
Sebastian Horsley was found in his home on the morning of Thursday, June 17, killed by an accidental heroin and cocaine overdose. He was 47 years old.
“But really death seems the least awful thing that can happen to someone.”
—Sebastian Horsley, Dandy in the Underworld: An Unauthorized Autobiography
Tony O’Neill is the author of books including Digging the Vein, Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He recently wrote about the sad end of the author of Drugstore Cowboy.
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