Interview with Denis Browne

December 9, 2008

Denis Browne, Trocchi’s literary assistant in later life, answered some questions on this era.

Andrew Stevens: You’ve detailed your involvement with Alex Trocchi but how did it really come about?

Denis Browne:  I’d known Alex for a few years before I started working with him. He’d just had an operation for cancer and decided he needed someone to help run his second hand book business and be a kind of literary assistant to him. This seemed really exciting, and I thought maybe it could even help in getting my writing out there.

I knew him from ’78 till his death in ’84 — which was a massive contributory factor to me finally getting away from heroin. He was the best friend I could have had in those days, but if I could talk to him now, I’d be saying that there are better causes to fight for in life than the Right to be a Junkie.

Andrew Stevens: To what extent were you involved with him?

Denis Browne: It soon became pretty clear that he had a terminal case of writer’s block, and it wasn’t long till I realised that as far as any writing was concerned, it just wasn’t going to happen. He did manage a few lines of an autobiography and we’d occasionally give me an old notebook to transcribe, but that was it.

So we’d go round looking at old books, checking the stall at Antiquarius, maybe buy some books at Christie’s, stop at the pub for lunch. Another day gone and of course a fair amount of heroin was taken.

Andrew Stevens: You mentioned that Alex wasn’t a fan of music and only owned one record, what was that?

Denis Browne: The record in question was ‘Ascenseur pour l’echafaud’, Miles Davis Quintet, Paris 1957.

I’m listening to it now — it’s Miles at his coolest, maybe with a little narcotic assistance. This is from Alex’s Paris phase. Story goes that Miles and his group improvised the soundtrack while watching scenes from the film projected on a huge screen in front of them. Whatever, its an amazing album. Anyway, I found it one day chez Alex, and knowing that contrary to most junkies in my experience, he’d always shown zero interest in music, I asked what’s the story. Typical Alex — he casually mentioned “Oh it was something I was involved in…”, but as always tantalising, and not sure exactly how?!

Trying to explain punk to Alex was one of our few times of total non-communication. I tried to get him to see Sid and Nancy in the context of scagged-out arty youth versus the system, in a harder context than the 50s, but he couldn’t really understand it — he felt he’d fought all the battles he wanted to for “the cause” and by then was retreating/withdrawing into his de Quincey retirement.

Andrew Stevens: What exactly did being his ‘literary assistant’ entail?

Denis Browne: It amounted to zilch in the end in tems of output. Most of the time it meant helping in various ways in the running of his second hand/antiquarian book business. Occasionally he’d haul out old drafts or notebooks which we were going to work through, but it never went anywhere. After about a year, I realised that Alex had a terminal case of writer’s block if you wanted to look at it that way, or — as I prefer to think — he’d said what he had to say and really couldn’t be too bothered about writing anything new just for the sake of it … either way, any hopes I had of attaching my literary aspirations to a Trocchi revival were out the window.

In practical terms — I’d get round to his place 10am or so, we’d shoot up. Have a talk about this’n’that. Go to pub for lunch or I’d go out for quiche. Shoot up again. Talk about what we might do tomorrow. Go to bookstall at Antiquarius. Have another fix. Day over, and so it went on…

Monday morning I turned up and Alex was all excited, saying “Look, I’ve started on an autobiography” and pushed some file paper at me. There were about lines of his admitedly tiny writing, “One morning a young man found himself at the docks in Glasgow…” or similar. It was never heard of again.

Andrew Stevens: There were “years of no new material”, “tales of US Mafia publishing pirates” and “wannabe Dutch film-makers” in the later undocumented years of his life. Can you expand on this?

Denis Browne: Alex was always really big into the stories of his dramatic flight from the US in the early 60s — apparently for forging prescriptions and other junkie misdemeanours. According to him (as he couldn’t legally get back to the US), this meant that he couldn’t defend the copyright on his material — so that various people from Girodias on down were able to pirate/reprint his writing (esp. Helen/Sappho/Thongs) without paying royalties. I don’t recall the exact details, but he always maintained that one of his US publishers was pure Mafia — Castle Publishing or similar?

To be honest I’ve no idea where the truth is here. Obviously Alex would have been an ideal mark for any rip-off publisher — but over the years I cdn’t help feeling there was always the same pattern with Alex’s scenes and stories — it always got fucked up in the end cos the other people were crooks or didn’t understand him. I guess now my feeling is more that in having a habit you’re imposing such a handicap on yourself that its hardly surprising if other people see you as an easy target, you have so little comeback. Plus it also became part of an ongoing “what’s the point of doing anything, you just get ripped off” riff, which tended to justify not doing anything else and could get elaborated into a whole de Quincey thing about the rejected (and opiated) writer turning his back on those who’d failed to understand him.

Again, there was a Dutch film-maker (Argh! Whose name escapes me) who was always desperate for Alex to develop a Young Adam script with him. I was all for it, but Alex didn’t want to know.

Andrew Stevens: How did you feel when Alex came back into fashion in the late 1990s? Were you involved in any of the biographies or the film?

Denis Browne: Obviously I was amazed and delighted by the vibe generated around the Young Adam film and the young (mainly) Scottish writers and artists who were feeling what Alex was about… and I’m confident that where 20 yearrs ago I was resigned to him being a minor footnote, I think he’s in for more recognition. I can confidently say that I had zero input into any of the books or films.