Tuesday 27 September 2016

Books: Sins of the son

Memoir: Stars, Cars and Crystal Meth, Jack Sutherland (as told to John Sutherland), Faber & Faber, pbk, 368 pages, €16.99

Hilary White

Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30

Life in the fast lane: Jack's dad John is a steadying presence in the margins of the book.
Life in the fast lane: Jack's dad John is a steadying presence in the margins of the book.
Stars, Cars and Crystal Meth

A former celebrity PA's tell-all is a candid account of a life of excess - and it was all ghost-written by his academic dad.

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The redemptive power of the tell-all memoir must rank as one of the more wholesale forms of addiction recovery. Besides externalising events that even to the reformed can be painful and brain-scrambling to dredge up, the victims on the periphery can be addressed with explanation, remorse and apology in a long-form, closed debate.

But what if such a tale of return from the drug brink is ghost written by the addict's own father? What if they themselves had not exactly been the poster boy for a healthy liver while they'd been raising that child? And what's more, imagine if that father was also one of the most highly regarded authors and English academics in Britain.

These planets align with an irresistible tang of seedy celebritydom and come ready packaged in Stars, Cars and Crystal Meth by the Sutherland father-and-son team. John, a former Booker chairman, author and University College London Professor, transcribes and rewrites the account of son Jack's time as a personal assistant to the stars in LA. A buoyant and almost gonzo tone infiltrates many of the hair-whitening anecdotes, tales that must have been as harrowing for son to recall as father to rewrite into bestseller fodder (John remarks dryly throughout via regular footnotes).

But here we are none-the-less, and it would be churlish to say that Sutherland Jr's life of star-handling, drug-guzzling and gay (in both senses of the term) abandon is not worth being committed to paper and ink, even if the author himself, amid the rollicking car crashes, must regularly remind everyone that this is a cautionary tale.

It's somewhat remarkable to think that by his late teens, Sutherland was already a recovering junkie (at age nine, he had downed a bottle of alcopop and "enjoyed" the sensation). Growing up in Pasadena, school had been a blizzard of booze, weed and crumby grades. Intervention by his parents and an existential clip around the ear saw him pick himself up, accept the closeted homosexuality that was part of the rabid escapism and get himself a job as a runner for a music video production company.

Soon, his meticulous eye for detail and granite-strength work ethic saw him promoted to "talent liaison" for stars such as Des'ree and Iggy Pop, seeing to their every need on set. It was during a shoot for REM's 'What's The Frequency, Kenneth', the lead single of 1994's Monster, that Sutherland was approached by the band's management. Initially suspecting he was being hit on, it emerged he was in fact being sized-up as Michael Stipe's new PA for their upcoming world tour.

Sutherland is very good at breaking down the duties and boundaries of being a star's right-hand man. Every tiny potential whim of "the talent" must be anticipated. That can range from having a pen and pad handy should inspiration strike the songwriter in first-class to, in the case of notorious Hollywood bruiser Mickey Rourke and his canine entourage, having a spare lead, poop bags and dog blanket awaiting him at his hotel suite.

What appears impossible to prevent, though, and the reason that stars like Rourke turn over their PAs regularly, is a connection building. This would lead to obvious complications in what is a highly paid but extremely demanding 24/7 job. Sutherland skirted such territory with Stipe and later drag queen RuPaul with mixed results. He sounds proud of those days, and so he should. By the time REM's accursed 1995 world tour ended, he was earning top dollar while still only in his mid-twenties. Unfortunately, the fattened finances along with a restless, ADHD energy setting and much popularity on LA's Santa Monica Boulevard gay-cruising scene meant that Sutherland made much trouble for himself. His moxie and love of hard graft saw him enter the private limo industry, a hulking market in LA for obvious reasons. Fourteen years of sobriety abandoned him as work stresses increased and his partying lifestyle sailed closer and closer to the wind. The "multiple, excitingly irresponsible, anonymous encounters" (sometimes known as "cottaging") and other casual sexual affairs he was galloping through led to a generally reckless outlook bleeding into the workplace and the eventual return of drugs and spirits to his weekly consumption.

At last, a mysterious tryst brings him into the realm of crystal meth. An addiction to rule them all is born. For someone who was diagnosed ADHD, bipolar and sex-addicted, meth (as he details in an "Epilogue/Drugalog") was what he'd been looking for his whole life. Soon, he'd be living solely for chemsex orgies with complete strangers in penthouse suites.

There are return visits to the last-chance saloon until, finally, the well of goodwill and the monies accrued from work or iffy litigation pay-outs both dry up. At the core of the tale, deep-rooted psychological issues are suggested by this relentless pattern of near-death, foot-down resolve and relapse into chemsex gluttony.

He doesn't outright blame John for the alcohol abuse he took into the family homestead (detailed in John's 2001 confessional Last Drink to LA). Nor does he dwell too much on Theresa Hennessy, the Irish shoe-store saleswoman who gave him up for adoption after travelling to the UK under the guise of an abortion voyage.

"I toyed with the idea of going on the hunt for Theresa. But I lost my nerve in the face of being rejected again," is a telling remark early on, as is John's assertion in his own "Secretarial Afterword" that Jack's primary ailment is depression.

What's saddest of all perhaps is that Jack was talented. He reinvented himself professionally with flourish and was clearly able to excel at whatever he chose to. He inspired trust and learned with lightning speed. A feeling of wasted potential lingers long after Stars, Cars and Crystal Meth has drawn to a close.

The many anecdotes about the celebs orbiting Jack, whether juicy or every-day, provide respite, and in the case of Stipe and one-time confidante RuPaul, the most visible displays of human heart on show in this sordid saga. And yet Sutherland seems burnt by the LA celebrity machine, at one time chastising certain megastars for treating average Joes as "lesser life forms" just paragraphs before calling the industrial strata of traffic wardens "the lowest kind of slime".

Common decency and perspective appear to be other casualties of Jack's ruin. Even John, very much a constant and ship-steadying presence on the margins, admits the project has made him like Jack "a little less" but love him more than ever.

Redemption always comes at a cost, it seems.

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