Russell Brand is a lucky man. Lucky to be alive, to have two movies in the box office top ten, to have married a woman who seems to not be too bothered by his checkered past. A past so checkered — well, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a fabric with checks that small. The man has done it all — been an alcoholic, a junkie, addicted to sex (prostitutes a specialty). What is extraordinary about Brand is that he managed to live this life of debauchery before he became really successful. Just when you think he’s another showbiz cliché, he really isn’t. He may have partied like a rock star, but his hedonism wasn’t a result of the trappings of fame. It was about a larger-than-life personality that couldn’t seem to handle being a larger-than-life personality.
Brand’s story is one of hitting the depths and crawling back up out of them, but he never uses labels. My Booky Wook is not a self-help book. He tells funny or tragic stories about his life and goes on his merry way, letting the reader draw their own conclusions. When he was in rehab for sex addiction, all the doctors wanted to label him bipolar and start filling him with drugs. A recent graduate of a 12-step alcohol and narcotics program, he wasn’t supposed to have drugs and politely declined. But he doesn’t preach or complain or call the doctors the ridiculous twats that they were. He just tells the story.
“I’ve never had a sustained period of medication for mental illness when I’ve not been on other drugs as well. It’s just not something that I particularly feel I need. I know that I have dramatically changing moods, and I know sometimes I feel really depressed, but I think that’s just life. I don’t think of it as, ‘Ah, this is mental illness,’ more as, ‘Today, life makes me feel very sad.’ I know I also get unnaturally high levels of energy and quickness of thought, but I’m able to utilize that.”
Like many other Americans, Russell Brand has only been creeping onto my radar gradually over the past year or two. His star has exploded here recently, with his marriage to pop star Katy Perry and his more frequent voiceover work and movie roles. He’s still an acquired taste, but I don’t mind mad Brits, and My Booky Wook is as Mad Dog and Englishman as it gets. Plus, it’s pretty damn funny.
It’s poignant, too. Brand was only six months old when his father and mother separated. His dad and his dad’s family stayed in his life, but his dad clearly didn’t want to be married, or responsible for him, either emotionally or financially. He seems to have been, most of the time, pretty isolated and lonely, “For me happiness occurs arbitrarily: a moment of eye contact on a bus, where all at once you fall in love; or a frozen second in a park where it’s enough that there are trees in the world.”
He was one of those kids that are constantly in trouble. He had a compulsive need to do what was the opposite of what someone wanted, just to get a reaction, see what would happen. He’s still doing it in his comedy today. One story he tells centers on a day when he was talking to a nice old house-proud man in his neighborhood who he had always been friendly with. The old man was admiring his garden and said, right before he went inside for a moment, that Russell wasn’t the type that would ever stamp on any flowers, was he? That’s all Brand needed to hear. Almost as soon as the old man’s back was turned he jumped on the flowers, crushing and destroying every one. The old man was not happy with what he came back to see. “He glanced first at me, and then at his devastated flowerbed; all plowed up and butchered, like a Ripper victim — like Pearly Poll, lying gutted in Hanway Street, Spitalfields.”
Brand realized that he probably blew it big time. This man could have been a quasi-father figure to him, but not after that incident. That same recklessness, sense of anarchy, led to his self-harming as well. “I get fixated when I’m bleeding — I can see why they went in for blood-letting in the medieval times because it makes you feel a bit better. When I cut myself, the drama of it calms me down.” The biggest source of his unsettled childhood was his mom’s multiple illnesses. She endured (and survived) three bouts of cancer — uterine (when he was 8), breast (when he was 9) and lymphoma (when he was 16). While she would be in hospital or undergoing treatment, he would be shuttled from his beloved Nan’s house to his father and other relatives and back again.
He was constantly getting in trouble at school, but everything changed when he was cast in a school production of Bugsy Malone. He must have heard angel choirs singing, because finally a kid who belonged nowhere found his place in the world, on the stage.
“The light. The light is so bright that all that remains is you and the darkness. You can feel the audience breathing. It’s like holding a gun or standing on a precipice and knowing you must jump. It feels slow and fast. It’s like dying and being born and fucking and crying. It’s like falling in love and being utterly alone with God; you taste your own mouth and feel your own skin and I knew I was alive and I knew who I was and that that wasn’t who I’d been up till then. I’d been so far away but I knew I was home.”
Brand’s epiphany came at about the same time that his mother’s boyfriend Colin moved in with them. Brand and Colin distinctly did not get along — to the point where Brand left home because he found it impossible to live under the same roof with him. His mother must have been too distracted and freaked out by her latest cancer scare to intervene. At this time Brand also discovered and started using drugs — first pot, and then gradually but steadily all the way up the scale — speed, acid, coke, crack and finally, heroin.
As soon as he started using, he doesn’t seem to have been able to function without being on some substance, sometimes all cocktailed together. He’d come to school high, get kicked out. He would be enrolled in another, get kicked out. As messed-up as he was most of the time, he was still able to get a grant to attend the Italia Conti drama school (eventually kicked out of there, too) and was accepted into the Drama Centre London. The Drama Centre, as Brand explains it, is a sort of British version of The Method style of acting, with such distinguished graduates as Paul Bettany, Pierce Brosnan, Simon Callow, Maryam d’Abo, Frances de la Tour, and Colin Firth. Can’t you just hear Brand shouting across the room at an alumni reunion, “Oi! Colin!”
The faculty at the Drama Centre seemed fully aware of Brand’s substance intake, but must have chalked it up to artistic temperament. “… And drinking neat liquor from the bottle, with all my long hair and my shirt undone and my beads, not so much the lizard king, more a gecko duchess, I fitted in nicely with their idea of what a creative person should be.” Brand received great reviews for his work there until during a crit session he broke a bottle and cut himself on stage. He was of course high at the time and was inevitably expelled.
“What I’ve learnt — to my cost — on several occasions in my life, is that people will put up with all manner of bad behaviour so long as you’re giving them what they want. They’ll laugh and get into it and enjoy the anecdotes and the craziness and the mayhem as long as you’re going your job well, but the minute you’re not, you’re fucked. They’ll wipe their hands of you without a second glance.”
Out of school for good, Brand decided to try to join the workforce, mostly bit parts in television programs or stand-up. He’s been hired and fired in more jobs in a few years than most people have held in a lifetime. But even at the height of his drug-addledness, he could always get someone to hire him, give him a chance. He seems to have always had a protective bubble around him, of friends and family that stepped in to pick up the pieces when the moment required. He also strangely enough, managed to maintain some of his own ideals in his junkiedom, “Even as a junkie I stayed true [to vegetarianism] — ‘I shall have heroin, but I shan’t have a hamburger.’ What a sexy little paradox.”
Most of Brand’s early television work isn’t too familiar to U.S. audiences, but they sound intriguing, especially his show RE:Brand. He seems to have taken reality television to a whole new level of “too real,” focusing on subject matter sexual and social, such as masturbation, prostitution, elder sex and neo-Nazis. What Brand may have failed to realize was that as he went deeper and deeper into the outsider scene of sex and drugs, his audience might not have wanted to go along with him. As brilliant and outrageous as his ideas may have been, the majority of folks only want to live vicariously up to a limit. Most of his shows sounds like performance art rather than comedy, similar to Vito Acconci jerking off under a gallery floor.
Brand was on drugs steadily from the age of 16 until 28, in 2002, when his manager John Noel pretty much strong-armed him into a 12-step program after catching Brand using heroin in his (Noel’s) bathroom at a Christmas party. He was successful in his attempt to quit drugs and alcohol, but his incessant womanizing took much longer to give up.
Brand was exposed to porn at such a young age — he claims as early as four years old — that when he would be dropped off at his father’s, he would be watching porn videos or looking at Playboy magazines while his father “diddled birds in the room next door.” That qualifies as being a victim of sexual and child abuse in my booky wook. When he became a teenager his most significant bonding experience with his father was a father/son vacation — his dad took him on a sexual odyssey tour of Asia. He got his first introduction to prostitutes and he never seemed to look back. He loves women — in quantity and abstractly, but it’s hard to not wonder about misogynist tendencies when someone is such a serial fucker.
Brand now has to take everything “one day at a time.” So does everyone, but when you are such a compulsive person, it must be that much harder. My Booky Wook is actually a very entertaining and even endearing read. Brand has a very amusing way of phrasing things and for the most part, seems to unflinchingly reveal his deepest darkest thoughts and deeds. He has lived the life of Alfie. The question is whether he has truly come out the other side.
One of his quotes relating to his dad resonated with me:
“My dad’s philosophy was (and I think still is) that life is a malevolent force, which seeks to destroy you, and you have to struggle with it. Only those who are hard enough will succeed. Most people get crushed, but if you fight, in the end life will go, ‘Fucking hell. This one’s serious. Let him through.'”
Brand is certainly serious, and has been his own worst enemy, but he is breaking through. It will be interesting to see how he channels his natural, anarchic tendencies into a more sober world.