A little respect: paying tribute to a brilliant queer writer, Richard Smith

Fagburn blogger, queer author & journalist and former Gay Times associate editor Richard Smith passed away recently. He was a friend of mine.

Richard Smith, who has died of a haemorrhage aged 49, could be hard work, extremely rude and for reasons too complicated to go into here, thought the people who used to run Gay Times were a bunch of cunts. 

He was also endlessly funny, fiercely kind, one of our generation’s most talented and expressive music writers and a fearless and unswervingly principled advocate for the notion that the gays should be able to just get on with their bloody lives thanks very much.

His passionate and often merciless pop music criticism was expressed in a sparkling style full of humour, humanity and literary allusion. It was also a vehicle for examining his personal journey from loneliness and isolation to fulfilment and comradeship. He laid his life on the page and it won him legions of fans.

“Pop music’s a bit like boys,” is how he kicked off the introduction to his excellent 1995 book Seduced & Abandoned, which collected some of his best music interviews and essays from Gay Times and elsewhere. “I mean, I just really, really love it. Let me tell you some of the stuff that I love.” What came next was a single paragraph that spanned four pages — a sprawling catalogue of pop, passion and personality. 

The stuff he loved included “the time Granny Smith told me her favourite record was I Will Survive”, along with “me being 15 and putting on Smalltown Boy and just crying and crying”, “the time I started rushing on my first E at Shame”, “thinking about Kurt Cobain”, and “being twenty-fucking-seven and still having a poster of Madonna over my bed”, along with dozens of other recollections. “I could go on,” the paragraph concluded. “I could go on forever.”

Anyway, let me tell you some of the stuff that I loved about Richard Smith.

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His box of 7” singles. Hearing Armand Van Helden’s remix of Tori Amos’ Professional Widow for the first time in a club, but Richard wanting to sit down and talk about Macarena instead. How one interview with Erasure (during which Richard inserted a massive “zzzzzzz” in the middle of a particularly dull Andy Bell quote) led to the band’s label pulling all advertising from Gay Times. The unique way — as you’d expect from someone who idolised Noam Chomsky and Smash Hits in equal measure — Richard approached both life and the way he wrote about it. His infuriating but warm, but mainly infuriating habit of calling our mutual friend, Popjustice journalist Peter Robinson “Peewee”. He would often call me Stevie P so I guess he liked things that rhymed with wee-wee, and the letter P. How Richard found a way to sidestep the narcissistic pitfalls that snare most journalists while also writing deeply personal accounts of love, music, culture and gay life. The time he was sick on stage at G-A-Y. His obsession with The Fall. The suspicion that he must have been responsible for at least half of all south coast charity shop transactions since the early 1990s. How in so many photographs he seemed to be pointing at something for no reason. The rush of accomplishment when you made him laugh. The unnerving way it was impossible to look anywhere in his flat in Brighton without making eye contact with at least one Bart Simpson. His plan to steal a lifesize cardboard Benny from an ABBA book launch. The terms and conditions on his Fagburn blog: “If you think I’ve written something which is — legal term coming up — a bit out-of-order, just let me know. I’m quite nice really.” I could go on forever.

I met Richard approximately one million years ago. Well, it was 1999. I’d been contacted by GT to provide some interview quotes of Neil Tennant on David Bowie for a glam rock glitter kids feature. This led to the start of sporadic email contact between us, until one day he asked for my mobile number. Er, I didn’t have one. The email said simply, “I’ve been in touch recently with Angie Bowie and need your advice. Can we meet for lunch?”

We met for lunch. No, actually it turned out to be dinner in the end, somewhere in Soho. He smoked like a trooper. And he was fretting because he wanted the former Mrs Bowie to contribute to the Seventies/Ziggy piece and it was all going a-ok until she responded to a question by sending him pages upon pages of venomous invective, a torrent of abuse because he’d said something she didn’t like. 

Anyway, he scrapped the Angela Bowie idea, but in the weeks, years and, bloody hell, the decades that followed I’d get to know Richard Smith very well indeed. We discovered we’d both grown up in the same county, Buckinghamshire; me in the naughty north and he the sexy south. And so a firm friendship developed that I would come to cherish enough to bestow irritating nicknames of my own, Dicky and Smudger usually, though not at the same time.

Elvisly his. Maybe

In the early days he took me clubbing in Brighton, most often when it was Gay Pride weekend: sometimes to shirts-off enormoclub Wild Fruit, more often to miniature pop-cabaret shambles Dynamite Boogaloo, where he played a warmup record-spinning slot under the DJ Wanker moniker he later used when co-founding electroclash night Fuck The Pain Away.

We’d hit London, too, for Popstarz or Nag Nag Nag and The Cock at Ghetto. He would call me a “very loyal friend” for always helping out during his sets, be it passing on audience requests — “Can you tell him to play Marc Almond’s Baby’s On Fire?” would be one I heard more than a few times — getting the drinks in or just making sure he got his record boxes on to the last train to Brighton. I was just doing what mates do, right? Anyway, what goes around comes around, because Richard (with his then boyfriend Manuel, and no, not the one from Fawlty Towers) was the only friend from England to come and visit me when I emigrated to Holland. We had a raucous night in Amsterdam at the infamous Cockring, naturally.

Peewee, me, Dikky

And I can remember Dikky trying to blag his way in as if it were yesterday.

Burly Dutch man: “It’s five euros entry.”

RS: “I’m Richard Smith from Gay Times.”

Burly Dutch man: “That’ll be five euros.”

Richard paid up.

But it wasn’t all about getting off our tits at every opportunity. It quickly started to make sense to me how this spirit — the idea that writing had to have a point — ran with such intensity through Richard’s own work, no matter how supposedly frivolous the subject matter. It felt like Richard could effortlessly explain how everything meant something.

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Thanks to Richard Gay Times commissioned me to interview/review all kinds of popsters from Pete Burns to Robbie Williams to Pet Shop Boys. Out of a respect for his deeper, superior journalistic skills I decided to take him along to George Michael’s house in Highgate, once the singing Greek had finally agreed to let me formally interview him for a publication of my choice in the summer of 2007. Despite the cover feature helping to make it one of Gay Times’ biggest selling issues (cf opening the new Wembley, drugs busts, court appearances blah blah blah) the magazine never did pay me for this “world exclusive”, not did I receive a cut from the surprise syndication in the Daily Mirror, despite also writing for the tabloid at the time. Perhaps they were cunts.

Whether writing for Gay Times, Time Out, Melody Maker, the Guardian or in any of the other places his words landed, Richard captured and made sense of the outsider spirit, while being as direct and honest in his writing as he was in conversation. He was an original thinker who called out hypocrisy, railed against mawkish sentimentality (I suspect he’d have had one or two thoughts about this little stroll down memory lane), and took a strongly principled line on almost everything.

You know you’ve made it when you’re ridiculed in Fagburn

It was an approach that, of course, I strongly identify with, but one that cost him work — not least with GT. But it earned him respect, sometimes a little grudging, from his peers, as well as his friends and a new generation of readers who got to know him through pithy and acerbic blog Fagburn, which mixed tributes to his pop, literary and political heroes with often brutal bursts of invective against declining standards in the gay media. In 2013, Fagburn was shortlisted for publication of the year in the awards given by the campaigning organisation Stonewall.

He didn’t end up stealing that Benny cutout from the ABBA book launch, by the way. But he did leave, then re-enter, then leave again three times in a row, collecting a promotional goodie bag each time. A bit out-of-order, perhaps, but he was quite nice really.

Richard’s health declined dramatically after a fall last year in which he broke several ribs and suffered a punctured lung. He is survived by his sister, Justine.

You will hate me for saying this but I’ll miss you a bit. Time to rest now, dear.

Steve Pafford

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