My first experience with drugs was at boarding school. I was 14 years old and smoked a joint one school lunchtime with friends. Despite the fact I was I was already regularly drinking alcohol, I didn’t touch weed again for over a year.
With the benefit of hindsight, my first addiction was probably gambling. My addictive behaviours were always there from a young age and I would often find myself stealing money from my mother’s purse to gamble. It was only when I found recovery that I was able to see that my behaviour around gambling and drugs was exactly the same – I just swapped one outlet for another.
I left school at 15 with no qualifications and the group of people I started hanging out with all smoked weed and hash so I started doing so as well. My drug taking escalated and although I tried two different colleges, neither of them were more interesting than taking speed.
I left home at 16 and discovered acid the same year whilst at Glastonbury. I wasn’t in education or conventional work, so I spent a lot of time lying on my bed getting stoned and listening to music. I was obsessed with music and music culture. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew what I definitely didn’t want to do: work in an office or have a 9-5 job. I believed in sex, drugs and rock and roll, however naff that might sound.
Initially I didn’t think I had any problems. I was young, doing drugs, hanging out with lots of musicians and going to lots of gigs and festivals. Life was fun. I never saw drugs as a problem – I saw them as the solution. I became addicted to heroin.
I saw The Jam play when I was 12 and it changed my life forever. Ever since then I have wanted to be in a band and record an album. When I was younger my addiction was constantly getting in the way. Lots of musical opportunities came my way over the years but I was always snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
It’s really difficult to convince yourself that the choices you’re making are good ones when you’re staring at yourself in the mirror and you’ve got a needle in your neck.
After the initial honeymoon period, it’s really difficult to convince yourself that the choices you’re making are good ones (with good reason!), such as when you’re staring at yourself in the mirror and you’ve got a needle in your neck. I had a fleeting moment of clarity once but it wasn’t enough for me to stop.
A good example of the madness of addiction was when I went to see Oasis (who I had become friends with after meeting them when they played at the Water Rats pub in 1994) play at Knebworth in 1996. It was a seminal gig and I’d managed to get not just a ticket but a backstage pass. I got there early and realised I’d forgotten my heroin. When I discovered I couldn’t score backstage, I left and went back to London to score, missing the show. 120,000 people all there for one of the biggest and most important concerts of all time and I’m leaving, going the other way, because of my addiction.
I went through a lot of different interventions – in total I did 12 inpatient detoxes and seven residential rehabs. A few times I managed to get enough money together to go away to a remote island to go cold turkey. I completed every single one, but I was never able to stay clean for long. In the same way criminals see jail as an occupational hazard, rehab was the same for me.
The last four months of my using was in 2006. I’d moved to Spain and was living in a caravan by the side of a mountain. I’d always had a mental check list of things I would never do, no matter what – stuff like domestic burglaries. And yet over time during my addiction I basically broke all of them. I got myself into trouble there and had to leave quickly so called the only two people who would have anything to do with me and explained my situation. Thankfully they believed me, gave me some help and I came back to London. Within two weeks, I was sat in a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting. I don’t why I managed to stay clean this time. I wish I had some profound reason but I don’t. I just did what I was told and listened for once.
The kindness that people showed me really had an impact on me.
My life since I got clean has been amazing. My first year was difficult, particularly the first few months because I was detoxing myself (no rehab this time) so physically and psychologically I was a mess. NA Meetings were what got me through. I was homeless, so I relied on other people to look after me and they did. The kindness that people showed me really had an impact on me, maybe more so than any 12-step ethos. I found an acceptance there – here were people I could really identify with. After a while, I started volunteering at a rehab where I had previously been a client. That felt like quite a moment, to actually go back there as a volunteer after a couple of years clean.
I formed a band with some other musicians also in recovery, and we ended up playing at the Narcotics Anonymous World Convention in front of 2,000 other recovering addicts (which is still the biggest gig I’ve ever done). Being in a band with people in recovery was the best apprenticeship I could have done for what I’m doing now, which is being in a band with people who aren’t all in recovery. To be in that world, around musicians who are taking drugs and drinking, you need to have a really solid basis for your recovery.
I put The Hightown Pirates together in 2016. Recording an album of my songs was a lifelong dream that wouldn’t have been possible without abstinence. Pete Doherty did the artwork for the album, we released it to some really positive reviews from Q Magazine, Louder than War and GQ, and we toured with The Libertines. Things were looking great and I believed with every sinew of my body that we would get to go on tour and play and just be a proper band. All the things I’d wanted to do since I was a kid.
It didn’t happen – the album bombed. Despite the glowing reviews, it didn’t manage to cut through.
And yet, here’s the thing. Even though my pride was hurt and it was really hard for me to get my head around it all, what I learnt from that experience (and recovery in general) is that what is important is the process. Just doing it. The result – in this case everyone else’s reactions – is actually really irrelevant. You need to just keep on going. Recovery has taught me how to handle and accept life when it gets difficult and also how to persevere.
In 2019, three close friends, all of whom where music lovers, tragically died within the space of a few months. Their loss prompted me to record a new Hightown Pirates album, created exclusively with musicians in recovery.
Music hasn’t been my only creative outlet. I also wrote a book published in 2013, called: “Too High, Too Far, Too Soon: Tales from a Dubious Past”. I got lots of positive feedback from people who’d read it saying they found it helpful and inspirational. My favourite quote was “if someone as f**ked up as you can get clean then anyone can!”
I turned the book into a one-man play with Outside Edge theatre company, who are a participatory arts charity focused on substance misuse and addiction. We took it into treatment centres and also did a four-week run in the West End.
Recovery for me has been about reconnecting with myself, with other human beings, with music, with friends, with life.
But – for everything I’ve accomplished with my music, writing and theatre – when it comes to achievements, the biggest one by far has to be my daughter, who was born when I was four years clean. There have been difficult times in my recovery but I can say hand on heart that I haven’t ever seriously thought of using – it hasn’t even been an issue. I have shared custody of my daughter, so if the thought of using enters my head I just think I have no right to even try and get away with having a drink or whatever because of her. The connection I have with my daughter and the moments I share with her, those moments are so much better than any drug I put in my arm. If addiction is a disconnect then recovery for me has been about reconnecting with myself, with other human beings, with music, with friends, with life.
Simon’s new Hightown Pirates album ‘All of the Above’ has been recorded entirely by people in recovery. To help finalise and launch he album, he is running crowdfunding campaign – you can contribute here: