Word (September '05)
In at the Deep End
A father who drank himself to death was only the start of her problems. The violent, suspicious 18-year-old at punk's ground zero has finally made peace with her turbulent past.
Interview by WILLIAM SHAW Portraits by JASON BELL
FOURCES IS A BEAUTIFUL MEDIEVAL bastide in Gascony; ancient galleried houses encircle a small, tree-shaded town centre. It's jigsaw pretty.
In this French paradise a lovingly maintained baby-blue vintage Volvo 1800 draws up and the passenger door swings open. Out steps a woman. She is tall, glamorous, black-haired, dressed all in white in a cool cut-shouldered polo neck and slacks. Heads at the local auberge turn. Standing in the glorious, bright southern light, she waves. "Cooeee."
Right now, it could be a million years since 1976 when the Nazi-armband-sporting Siouxsie Sioux was one of that handful of Londoners who spearheaded that generational earthquake known as punk.
These days Siouxsie has reinvented herself as "Siouxsie"; neither the leader of the famous Banshees, nor one half of her runaway band The Creatures - simply Siouxsie. It's a reinvention that allows her to perform hits from both other bands, and yet add new twists. This July she released a DVD of Dreamshow, a movie made last October when she as Siouxsie performed old and new songs at the Royal Festival Hall - backed by band, string orchestra and the Kodo drummer Leonard Eto. It is a convenient reinvention - allowing her to pull her pasts together, but a timely one. The once-furious Siouxsie has reached an accommodation with her turbulent past.
She lives close by this pretty Gascony village with her husband Budgie and their cats. Most days she waters the plants; does the quick crosswords in occasional English papers, reads Virginia Woolf. Of an evening she goes out for a meal with her husband, watches a movie, or switches on Ladette To Lady to tut - like any middle-aged woman should - at the outrageous behaviour. "I just feel extraordinarily relaxed," she admits. "I like the lack of people around here."
1976, the year of her arrival, was a year choc-full of furious figures, but none were quite like the 18-year-old Susan Ballion. The Pistols may have been punk's ground zero; but the most overlooked thing about Siouxsie is that she arrived quite independently, and astonishingly fully-formed into that maelstrom year. Before anyone even uttered the words punk rock, in 1975 she was already strutting off on the bus to the Roxy dressed outrageously in rented costumes, drawing the threatening stares. She was one of that small handful who'd been waiting for this to happen, and who became one of punk's crucial catalysts.
She was at the epicentre of the so-called Bromley Contingent - that group of suburban misfits that included the young William "Billy Idol" Broad - who discovered the Pistols first and who added the fanbase glamour that the new band needed. She was the one who arrived topless at their shows, shocking even the Pistols' entourage. She was the one whose snarky tongue sparked the famous Bill Grundy incident on national TV when she wound up the presenter by saying, "I always wanted to meet you," sparking the brouhaha which ended in Steve Jones calling Grundy a "dirty fucker" - creating the moment which thrust the Pistols into the national consciousness.
But arguably Siouxsie's influence runs much deeper than punk. It was her band that provided the catalyst for Robert Smith's reinvention of The Cure. When in the early 1980s, the goth scene arrived, Siouxsie was clearly at the very least its fairy godmother.
From Elvis and Little Richard onwards, becoming a pop icon is an act or self-reinvention. but up until the mid-'70s no woman had ever reinvented herself quite as radically as Susan Ballion did when she turned herself into Siouxsie Sioux.
IF YOU LOOK BACK you can see it was an act of desperation. Born in 1957, Ballion was the sickly child of a fall-down drunk father and a mother who fought to maintain a veneer of normality in suburban Chislehurst.
Susan Ballion's life was the pits. If you want to look for clues, listen to The Banshees' last CD The Rapture. It's an undeservedly overlooked album from 1995. It was the point at which Polydor lost faith with the band's declining UK sales and dropped them. As a band The Banshees were moribund. Relations between Siouxsie and her long time co-writer Steve "Severin" Bailey were faltering; he had stopped writing lyrics. That left Siouxsie to write alone at a time when she was starting to re-examine her childhood on songs like The Lonely One ("I was the lonely one/I didn't want no one") and Falling Down. "I would see you falling down/Still I would have been around/Hated to hear the sound/As you fell and punched the ground/Such a miserable suicide."
It's a song about your father, isn't it?
"Yes," Siouxsie says, pulling on a Marlboro Lite. "It's only recently you realise what an impact seeing something like that makes..."
We've eaten a light lunch of local cheese and wine at the auberge before wandering to the gardens of the Chateau de Fources - a beautiful 12th century hotel run by friends. Now we sit in the afternoon sun watching dragon-flies flicking over the moat.
Her father was an intelligent Belgian doctor, a misfit in British suburbia who drank himself stupid at home. She remembers curiously intimate moments of sobriety when he would discuss his former career as a pathologist with her. "He described it very graphically," she remembers, smiling. Her passion for the visceral, she thinks, may stem from him.
Susan's nearest sibling was ten years older than herself. She was too ashamed to invite schoolfriends home to witness his misbehaviour. It was an isolated youth. "It obviously shaped me," she says. Add to that the song Candyman, from the 1986 album Tinderbox. It's a song about child abuse. "Oh trust in me my pretty one/ Come walk with me my helpless one..."
"That song," says Siouxsie, "was an outlet for a lot of things that had not been expressed."
At the age of nine, Susan and a friend were sexually assaulted. When they told adults what had happened the police were called, and Susan was taken to see a police doctor who examined her; but her family quickly swept the fuss under the carpet - it was another undiscussible item. Presumably that was the moment that Siouxsie started to acquire that total disrespect for adulthood and authority that she exuded in later years?
"Definitely" she agrees. "I grew up having no faith in adults as responsible people. And being the youngest in the family I was isolated - I had no-one to confide in. So I invented my own world, my own reality It was my own way of defending myself - protected myself from the outside world. The only way I could deal with how to survive was to get some strong armour."
That armour grew thicker at 14 when her father died, effectively drinking himself to death. Immediately afterward, the young Siouxsie developed ulcerative colitis - a bowel disease which often appears to be triggered by emotional distress. In her case, Siouxsie is convinced her father's death was the cause; she was hospitalised and operated on. During long summer months, she sat in bed watching the hospital TV; David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Roxy Music on Top Of The Pops.
The brickbats life threw her would have been enough to create an introverted, angry teenager. The weird miracle is that armour Susan Ballion created was Siouxsie; this outrageous, feisty, sexually ambiguous, costumed freak who drew the stares of her horrified neighbours.
Today you have to stretch to remember how scary it would have been to dress as Siouxsie did in 1975-76; and how much fear and hostility her ever-changing wardrobe, meticulously planned and often hired overnight from costumiers, would have engendered. Siouxsie and her contingent delighted in winding up the London she detested; she'd go to winebars with her gay friend Berlin on a leash, demanding a bowl of water for him. They were acts of deliberate gleeful provocation. Grey-haired women who called her "a little slut" when she answered the door half-naked in a plastic apron received a fist in the face. Following the Pistols to Paris wearing a Nazi armband, she was set upon, arriving at the show bloodied - to John Lydon's delight. "I was unafraid?" she ponders the idea. "I guess I thought I had nothing to lose."
It was Malcolm McLaren who gave her the opportunity to form a band when he asked, casually, if she knew any bands who might want to support The Pistols at the 100 Club at his supposed Punk Festival on 16 September 1976. "To say no would have been impossible," says Siouxsie.
She lights another cigarette. Last year before the Dreamshow dates she gave up smoking and immediately fell ill with a sinus infection that resulted in her waking up "with two giant Tampax up my nose." The pathologist's daughter with a fascination for hospitals describes - in unnecessary detail - the quantity of blood that flowed from her when the feminine hygiene items were removed. The operation made little difference. Subsequently she followed her own cure, returning to the Marlboro Lites with a vengeance. She says she felt much better after that.
Last year, in the run up to the Festival Hall dates she played the 100 Club again. It was a rare moment of nostalgia. Inevitably it brought that first, chaotic, under-rehearsed show back, with Marco Pirroni [later of Adam And The Ants] on bass and Sid Vicious banging on the drums as she intoned The Lord's Prayer.
"It's a shame. I always felt Sid was a better drummer than a bass player." Siouxsie tugs at her cigarette. Siouxsie detests the caricature Sid Vicious who became punk's ultimate icon. "Well, God. He was out of control on drugs. That was so apparent. It was so sad. 'Cause he was more intelligent than that. The shame is nobody realises that what he did, he did to wind people up. People think that was what he was. But the mix of drugs and fame really fucked him up."
THE BANSHEES, IT WAS immediately obvious, were an odd quantity. The cornerstone of the band's early days was Sioux and bassist Severin - another member of the suburban contingent who had become Siouxsie's boyfriend. Famously, no-one wanted to sign them. Siouxsie believes that the male industry didn't know what to do with a scary female singer. "Well, why else?" says Siouxsie. "We didn't get signed for an eternity compared to other bands we were headlining with."
Which may be so, but the Banshees' project has never quite fit the mainstream. Their modal melodies and spacious textures may have passed a baton to a generation of bands like U2, and their lush, darkly expressionistic lyrics may have laid the groundwork for Goth, but the Banshees' work never sat happily alongside that of their back-to-basics punk contemporaries. Their first hit was an eccentric piece of mock-Chinoiserie called Hong Kong Garden, dedicated to Siouxsie's local take-away.
Despite their eleven studio albums and string of memorable singles from Playground Twist through to Happy House and Christine and the inspired house-influenced Peek-A-Boo, the Banshees have always remained more influential than successful. There remains something uneasy about The Banshees' music Even in this age of perpetual retro, you don't hear it much on the radio.
Part of the problem was their ever-shifting line-up; guitarists in particular were hard to keep. John McKay walked; John McGeoch became mentally ill; his temporary replacement Robert Smith returned to his own band, disgruntled... and there were three more after that. Generally, you were very careless with your guitarists.
"Yes. Very negligent. We lost quite a lot. I don't know - the guitarists we got seemed to be those toddlers who'd wander off into the main road..."
The desertion of Robert Smith to return to The Cure two weeks before a Banshees' tour in particular stung Siouxsie. (Post-departure she coined the nickname "Fat Bob"). "I was only pissed off with him for letting me down," she says now. "That's unforgivable. Not turning up for a tour - that's a crime."
But part of the instability behind the Banshees may have lain in that magnificent shell-like exterior Siouxsie had built around herself; often other members seem to have felt left out. Communication between band members easily became strained. And once former Slit and Big In Japan man Peter "Budgie" Clarke joined, alliances between the band members changed again.
Siouxsie and Budgie became lovers. They shared a kinship. Budgie's mother had died when he was 12. They attempted at the start to keep their affair secret, ostensibly for the good of the group. "Well it lasted quite a while quite privately really," says Siouxsie.
Budgie was the person you allowed past that armour you'd built, wasn't he?
Because up until then you'd kept that strongly around you?
And it had got you a long way, as well.
"Yes," she says.
With the arrival of Budgie as Siouxsie's companion and collaborator the Banshees started to transform. With allegiances within the band shifting, tensions grew.
Siouxsie and Budgie formed their bare drums-and-vocals side project The Creatures, partly as a way to explore new non-Banshee ideas, partly as a way of simply finding time together. Severin and Robert Smith of The Cure created their own group, The Glove, which Siouxsie always regarded as a riposte to The Creatures. "Boys will be boys," says Siouxsie archly.
The Creatures had an immediate hit with the single Right Now, The Glove's album, in contrast, was a druggy mush. Severin and Siouxsie - once the creative heart of the band - drifted apart. Severin wanted to explore more electronic music; Siouxsie wanted him to stay with guitars. Each grew to distrust the other. Great moments still occurred on songs like Peek-A-Boo and Melt; paradoxically through the late '80s and early '90s, the band's star rose in America. In 1991 they were invited by Perry Farrell to join the drug-fuelled insanity of the first Lollapalooza tour, just as Kiss Them For Me was breaking big in the States; but it's a typical trajectory for UK bands that by the time they've cracked America, they're too worn out to want that success.
The Banshees had remained outsiders throughout their career. Poor management didn't help - but that's largely because they were too strong-headed to go with a conventional manager. "There was no way we were going to go with either the Svengali manager or the accountant manager," insists Siouxsie. Instead, for much of their career they chose people who managed their drug intake as badly as they managed the band. "We had managers that fuck up," admits Siouxsie.
But by then - in some ways - the Banshees had served Siouxsie's purpose. She'd been looking for a way of finding a life a million miles away from her suburban hell; the Banshees helped her find it.
In 1991 Siouxsie and Budgie married; the beginning of the end of the Banshees came in 1992 when the couple ran away together to find a home here in southern France.
"I think that precipitated the separation," agrees Siouxsie. "A band... it's like a family. There are always ups and downs. I think it's a sign of immaturity that you can't deal with them as they happen."
Formally the Banshees split after Polydor dropped them in 1995; they got back together briefly in 2002 for a tour when they were offered US dates. Reforming only showed how deep the enmity was now between Severin and Siouxsie. "It was so disappointing that bridges that should have been mended with the Seven Year Itch tour never were." They barely communicated.
"I suppose I kind of thought in the back of my mind, 'It would be great if we wanted to get back together again and do a new album'. But there seems to be this unspoken resentment." She now thinks it'll never happen.
She hasn't spoken to Steve Severin in a year. "We have go-betweens," she smiles. "It's sad, isn't it?"
THEIR LIFE HERE IS SURPRISINGLY calm, given what has gone before. She looks around, pointing out views, a medieval bridge, the light on the sunflower fields. The local I mayor arrives; he's an old friend. She tries to persuade him to join us; Budgie would be delighted to see him. "Il faut rester!" she tries to insist. "Peter a son Volvo."
She is clearly at home here. She goes back to Britain for business reasons. "It just seems | really joyless," she complains. She is disengaged | from music scene. Budgie owns an iPod; she doesn't. When she sees bands - she went to see the Kings Of Leon recently - she finds them stagey, aloof. "There's no risk of someone being pulled into the crowd, or people hitting each other," she complains.
What? They don't hit each other like they used to?
"Like I did," she cackles. "I used to just kick someone's head in," she remembers fondly.
In the old days Siouxsie could be terrifying; fisticuffs within the band or with obstreperous outsiders were commonplace.
Are you still capable of a good right hander?
"Yes I am," she says proudly.
When did you last whack somebody?
"Last time I did it professionally," she says, "was probably in the rehearsal room of last year's American shows."The new, more tactful Siouxsie declines to say who she hit. "They probably won't want to be known as someone who was hit by me," she laughs. "I have to be sorely tested to hit someone and I was being sorely tested. I will say no more."
Her life, when she is not on the road, is somewhat more sedate these days. Much of it revolves around her cats. "I think I still have a certain... wariness about people."
Her love of cats goes back to her childhood; she wanted a panther like in the Kipling stories her father used to read her in sober moments. Instead he brought her back a cat from the pub one day The cat had kittens. When conflict in the house became too unbearable she would go and sit alone on the back porch. "It would always be one of the cats that would come up and console me," she says.
The Banshees' income funds her relatively modest lifestyle; they had to scrape around to finance their ambitious tour with drummer Leonard Eto, but her fanbase - often people who saw something of themselves in her fractured personality - have remained doggedly loyal. These days her performances are more relaxed; the Dreamshow dates became a stylish grown-up experimental cabaret show.
This year there's a realisation abroad about how influential Siouxsie's role was. The Edge recently presented her with an award as an "Icon" at a magazine prizegiving. Siouxsie was delighted. At this year's Brits, she was presenting The Scissor Sisters with their Best International Award Act when their singer Ana Matronic grabbed the mike and turned the tables, declaring: "I'd like to thank Siouxsie Sioux, without whom I wouldn't be in existence. It's women like her who use their brains and not their butts who make this industry worthwhile."
"She was so generous," says Siouxsie, genuinely flattered.
It's a pop psychology cliche to say that many pop stars are damaged before they start and seek some sort of redemption in stardom; usually of course, it's the least reliable way of achieving it. But with Siouxsie, remarkably, sitting here blissfully admiring the view, becoming first a fierce pop star, and then learning to shed those layers has been a remarkable act of self-healing. At 48, that strange, brilliantly fearless persona that Susan Ballion invented as a survival mechanism served its purpose. With the exception of the occasional right-hander, she has abandoned it now. "You realise," she says, "it's not appropriate to keep that way of dealing with things. I guess you start to learn to drop away some of the layers because you don't need them."
For a middle-aged former punk Siouxsie seems remarkably content. If you ask if there's one thing in particular that she's particularly smug about having achieved she doesn't mention the hits, the gigs, or the shadow she's cast. She says, "It was getting myself out of the situation in Chislehurst. For me that is a great triumph. And I know I did that on my own."
You invented yourself?
"It was invent or sink. Do or die." She picks up the empty packet of Marlboros and squeezes it flat.
The Siouxsie DREAMSHOW-DVD is released by Demon Vision on August 22
Contributed by Bonnie Bryant.