The location where we’ve arranged to meet Dee Vincent, lead singer with reborn shock rockers Toten Herzen, is the sort of back street photographic studio you see in hip fashion shoots, all desaturated and grainy. The time is around eight p.m., the place is open, but Vincent herself is keeping us waiting. Eventually we hear footsteps and she shows up. In the darkness it’s quite an entrance, like the ghost who haunts the building has stumbled across us.
She’s taller than we imagined her to be, but still small, quite fragile looking, which is preposterous if her reputation is anything to go by. (Volcanic temper according to some who worked with her in the Seventies.) She’s also younger than she looks in the publicity photos and fan sightings that have proliferated since Toten’s comeback concerts hit the road. We’re forbidden to talk about that. And she’s more black and white than we were expecting. As she sits down, without introduction, her skin is like bleached parchment in contrast to the cannel-coloured bob she calls a hairstyle. The look is disturbing and she notices my alarm immediately.
“Someone in Germany thought I had a kidney condition. I said you turn yellow don’t you, but he said I wasn’t yellow because the condition was so advanced. He offered to treat me at a private clinic near Cologne, but you have to tell these people to back off. It’s usually a trick of the light. I’m quite orange in normal sunlight.”
I can guess she wouldn’t be orange in sunlight for long if she’s anything like Terence Pearl. I ask her what was the fallout from that?
She pouts. “Stranger things have happened at sea.” The casual dismissal of a man burning to death in broad daylight is just part of what makes Dee Vincent difficult to warm to. There are a number of investigations ongoing surrounding Toten Herzen, what stage are they at?
“Fuck knows. I’m not interested. Occasionally Rob [Wallet, the band’s publicist] gets asked about Lenny Harper getting his head chopped off, but nothing’s come of that. The police wanted to know what we knew about people like __________ and ____________ and ______________, but as we said, we know them, we know what happened to them, along with the rest of the country. What else. . . ?”
New York, I remind her.
“Oh, fuck that lot. That kid in Boston must have been really popular at school after he hit the headlines. __________ wanted me out of the band. I’m still here, she’s in an asylum. Life’s a bitch, but so am I when you piss me off.”
Is this rock bravado, a game to raise the hackles of the Mail and stir up the old conflict with the Mirror? I can almost see which way this interview is going to go. A casual stream of offensive provocations delivered with a knowing glint in the eye. But Vincent is having none of it.
“I’ve done one interview in each country we’ve been to and I get asked the same questions everywhere. Some slight regional variations depending on local sensitivities and interests. The Germans phrase everything within a European context, the Dutch try not to sound as if they’re trying to sound hip, the Swiss are desperate for you to like their country, and the Hungarians can’t say anything except how great the historical sights are and have you been here and have you been there.”
“Age and sex. The British media just want to undress you and they wonder who gave an old trollop the right to have a decent pair of breasts. You might be the exception, but even now you’re trying to look through my tee-shirt.”
I’m not, but even the simple accusation makes me blush. Dee Vincent has a way of looking at you that makes you want to confess to things you haven’t done. She sits on the edge of the settee and leans forward on her knees, gesticulating, pulling her fringe away from her eyes, playing with the rings on her waxy white fingers. Then she’ll inadvertently flash a smile and two ridiculously long canine teeth are there ready to introduce themselves.
How does she react to the accusations that the band are not the original Toten Herzen?
“The same way I react to all the accusations. I couldn’t give a rat’s arse about them. I’m not a scientist so I’m not going to speculate on how or why anything is the way it is, it’s up to people to draw their own conclusions and don’t go too far.”
Go too far?
“Or we’ll get upset.” She sticks her tongue out like a lizard and it’s the first slight indication that she might not be the full shilling. When she talks she’s distracted, when she looks at you it is intense but brief, the distance between her eyes and eyebrows is non-existent and gives her a permanent scowl. She has a habit of flaring her nostrils and there’s a perceptible low end grumble in her throat, just audible, the sort of sound a dog would make if it smoked.
What did she think when she found out about Tom Scavinio, the band’s manager, commissioning a second health report? She jumps up.
“Let me tell you about Tom Scavinio. [REDACTED]”
For a moment she was leaning into my face and almost poked a hole in my cheek with her fingernail. Being close to her is like being next to the chilled cabinets in the supermarket. A cushion of cold air surrounds her, literally cold air. A walking draft. Her disappointment at Tom Scavinio’s walking out on the band is obvious. She falls back down onto the settee and I wonder how to link that to the subject of the new album. Will his absence have an effect on the new album?
“No. He’s not a songwriter, he’s an organiser. We’ll muddle through.”
If there was a chance he’d return to managing the band haven’t you just blown it?
“He knows us, he knows me, he knows we don’t always mean what we say. Our barks worse than our bite. Metaphorically speaking.”
Not literally, obviously, and she knows I’m thinking that. A grin flashes across her face and she starts on me again. She crosses the space between us and puts one knee on my thigh and starts talking to her hands. “I won’t bore you with any of our history because it’s well documented. Rob pretty much told the world everything about us, which is why we occasionally lock him in a steel cage to keep him out of harm’s way. But when I think about it, when I look back on how we were when we first started we were like babies, utterly totally dependent on Micky Redwall to do everything. We practically let him wipe our arses for us, but at the same time we sort of expected it because we were the rock stars, we were the band, the band didn’t do everything themselves, that’s why you had managers and publicists and roadies and stylists and photographers and drivers and security. All we had to do was get on stage and perform or get into the recording studio and record. And it gets to the point where you start to atrophy or turn into vegetables. And like a drunk trying to come off the booze or the spendthrift trying to cut up the credit cards you wonder how the fuck you’re going to cope? When the life support machine is switched off how are you going to breathe? How will I walk unaided? How will I go on the toilet, someone else always wipes my arse for me, which hand do I use? Do I use my hands, I’ve never done it before. . . .”
The weight of her leaning on me is staggering. I want to cry out in pain, but I don’t think she’s aware of it. She’s motoring on and on and her leg is trapping my leg and my eyes are watering. It feels like it’s either going to break or be cut in two. I put my hand on her waist in the hope that she’ll move.
“Anyway,” she says, releasing me. She stands up, legs apart, still gesticulating. “The point I’m getting at is that you think you’ll sink, but you don’t. You find a way and you survive, you find someone else if you’re that desperate, but I think Susan doesn’t need someone else. Not now. Maybe last year when Rob Fucking Useless Wallet let us down, but Scavinio did his bit, thank you very much, but we know how to record an album. We’ve done it five times before. Well, four and a half. You okay? Did I crush your leg then. Sorry, I don’t know my own strength.”
She hops onto the settee and in one movement twists and sits crossed legged ready to meditate. What can she tell us about the album.
“Well, we haven’t started yet. There are no songs written, there’s no title and we haven’t booked a recording studio. Rob thinks we should pitch it somewhere between Nightwish and Dschinghis Khan. Between symphonic metal and schlager. That’s all I can say. That’s all I know.”
It’s true Toten Herzen are coming back into a jungle of rock and metal sounds with endless genres subdividing into ever smaller sub genres. But if you were to draw the band’s ‘rock family tree’ it would be a surprisingly small family consisting of eight members, nine if you include Peter Miles. No convoluted pedigrees here. Two bands, Cat’s Cradle from Lincoln and After Sunset from Rotterdam being dissected, the fat trimmed and the rest put back together in Ipswich. Do people still mistake them for a German Band?
“I don’t think anyone has ever mistaken us for a German band. The stories always made a point of describing us as Anglo-Dutch, like Shell, but when Anglo-Dutch is usually in the same sentence as vampires, necrophiliacs, murderers, troublemakers, horse killers, people tend to overlook what nationality we are. The name Toten Herzen was never a rod for our backs, until now.”
“It’s the signature. It’s what people do in our name. Toten Herzen is like the starting gun in the one hundred metre idiot race. It’s become shorthand for do what you will and fuck the whole of the law. If we changed our name to, I don’t know, Mumford and Sons, people would think we were a fucking removal firm and leave us alone. Then we wouldn’t have all the mad shit following us from town to town.”
But these people love you, you’re the reason for their existence aren’t you?
Vincent sounds exasperated by the suggestion. “That’s all fucking well and good if they paid for their own damage, but they impale themselves on flagpoles and then send us the bill.” She leans forward again and talks to me as if she’s talking to a studio camera. “Look, a message to all our fans reading this. Stop torching every town and city you visit. It is a curious form of flattery, I’ll grant you. You might call it passionate. It’s an exclusive club and sometimes you lie awake and think yeah, Toten Herzen fans are the fucking biggest on earth, no one takes them on. All these rap fans going to gigs with their little guns and running off after they shoot someone. In Hungary, police stopped a mobile home with two anti-tank guns and a thousand rounds of ammunition inside it. They were part-timers in the Hungarian army. I mean, who were they planning to shoot with that lot?”
What I find strange, I tell her, is that the music itself isn’t particularly aggressive. It has psychedelic influences, prog rock influences, but steers well clear of thrash or death metal. So where is the trouble coming from. Vincent pouts again.
“Us I suppose. Or the things written about us. Which is old hat and starting to sound repetitive. When we made the comeback last year it didn’t take long for all the headlines to start sounding very very boring. Even we were bored reading them. We stopped after a few months. I haven’t read a newspaper since December. Terrible what they did to that Ceaucescu fella wasn’t it?”
Has the band taken any influences from the current generation of rock bands and metal bands?
“No. In a word. It’s all a bit samey at the moment. [REDACTED]”
As she rants it occurs to me that she’s on her own here. No PA, no entourage, no people. She’s turned up for this interview with Hullaballoo magazine totally exposed, unbriefed, unaccompanied. How, why does she do that?
“It’s part of the game isn’t it. The higher you go the more stable you need to feel and having a load of floozies and cronies and hangers-on and ingratiates gives you the reassurance that you’re not gonna plummet over the edge. But then it becomes that self-fulfilling prophecy, doesn’t it? You are important, all the statistics say you’re important, everyone around you says you’re important. Before you know it you’re buying ten thousand dollar shoe laces and no one’s trying to stop you. Everybody is terrified of losing their seat on the gravy train, everyone justifying their existence, justifying why they’re needed. You only have to look at them, like _______, that fucking nonce from _____. They almost had to shut Heathrow when he flew into Britain because he brought half of fucking _____ with him. Kim Jong Un doesn’t have that many people round him and he’s a living god, for Christ’s sake. And then you’ve got all the spoiled bitches with their hang ups and idiosyncrasies. . . .”
I settle back for this and hope she doesn’t at some point sit on me again.
“What I find peculiar is that every one of them, every last one of them comes from a poor fucking background. The old so-poor-we-had-one-bed-between-ninety-of-us. And the amount of bling they carry round with them now shows they never left the fucking neighbourhood. They’re identikit morons: ____________, __________, _____________, __________. They give off this whiff of self-empowerment and don’t have the brains to see they’re nobodies when they’ve got their clothes on. Products of their own sexual misadventures.” She giggles for a moment, forgetting I’m here. “I mean, look at [REDACTED]. I heard [REDACTED]”
It’s hard to comprehend Vincent’s antipathy towards these artists. No stranger to poverty herself, she grew up in the same terraced street in Lincoln as Elaine Daley in the 1950s and 60s. Her father was an agricultural worker and her mother worked in a baker’s shop a few streets away. An only child, Vincent has all the energy and self-awareness of someone who was the only focus of her parents’ attention. So, why is she so antagonistic towards other artists who rose to the top like her?
“Do you want a slap in the face? Firstly, I don’t tell the world what a fucking horrible life I had and how I evolved out of some kind of slime to become a human being. I don’t lie about how many people I’ve fucked to get that record contract. I don’t strip down to my fucking skeleton to sell my records. I don’t demand, I don’t attack people with shoes, I don’t pretend to know nothing about the world, I don’t have weird pets and I don’t collude with corporations in the guise of fan reach. People say I’m a vampire, but I’d be fucking embarrassed to be a shameless bloodsucker like __________ or __________. And the men, well, they’re just fucking animals. They should be put down. Fucking rapists the lot of them.”
So far I’ve counted three examples of libel, the rubbishing of a large part of the heavy metal community and the wholesale accusation of rape against all male solo artists. Is there anyone else she wants to slander?
“Slander? I’m only telling it like it is. But then your legal team will probably go through this interview with a big red pen and say ‘can’t have that,’ ‘can’t have that,’ ‘rephrase that’.” She steps towards me again. Dan the photographer hasn’t taken a shot yet. In fact, his camera is still switched off. Dee Vincent has climbed on top of me, literally kneeling on top of my legs and is staring straight into my face. She’s breathing heavily, the familiar cushion of cold air is making me shiver uncomfortably and she keeps looking at my neck. “You see, part of the problem is the media. You are the messengers when the fingers point at you, ‘not us, we didn’t say nuthin, we just the messenger.’ But then when you think you can get away with it you paint the picture you want to paint. You create the freaks, you create the weirdos, when the freaks and weirdos are not freakish enough, not weird enough, you always put that little eeny weeny spin on it, don’t you.”
Her eyes are huge and blood red. She has a tiny scar, no longer than a centimetre above, her right cheek. She places a fingernail on it and opens it up, drawing a red line down her face to her jaw. The blood oozes out in a sickening viscous trail. I feel sick. I want to be sick. God knows what would happen if I was sick all over her now.
“When you have strange behaviour you love it. When it’s not strange enough you make it up. And all the time you cunts are playing the game. You tag along with us, the artists, the centres of attention and you invite yourselves along because you’re no good at doing what we do, but you want to be part of it. Rob Wallet was the same. A leech who thought he could rescue his career by tagging along. __________ was another one thinking he was ever so cool and down with it because he slagged everyone off. But you don’t have an air of superiority because you’re not superior. You never were, you never will be.” Her tongue is long enough to snake around the side of her face and lick the blood that’s pouring out of the elongated scar. “And . . . it . . . pisses . . . me . . . off. It fucking pisses me off that we have to suck your dicks to get our message across, we have to go through your filters and your portals and we don’t get heard unless we’re extreme and then you end up with this spiral where nothing is too extreme.”
She holds her tongue out and lets the blood cascade over the tip, staining my tee shirt. “I nearly killed a reporter from Melody Maker in 1975. Do you know why?” I shake my head. “Because he didn’t believe me when I told him I don’t sleep around. I don’t fuck the groupies or the road crew. What are you a fucking nun, he said.” She pauses and looks at the stain on my tee-shirt. For a moment I wonder if she’s regretting what she’s done, but then she looks at me again, looks into my eyes as if I’m in here somewhere looking back out. “Nothing’s changed. No one has the imagination to change. The girls are still stripping off, the men are still fucking the girls and you cunts are still giggling from the sidelines. What a joke. What a joke.”
She climbs off me. Before she turned away I’m sure the scar was gone, the running blood gone, the blazing red eyes back to normal, if they ever were normal. She walks away from us and is consumed by the darkness of the studio. Dan has no photographs, but I think he’s relieved he didn’t have to give her instructions or suggest positions, expressions, poses. She went back to the darkness she stepped out of. Dee Vincent’s world is very very dark.
And then she came back. . . .
(Hullaballoo Magazine, copyright Gillard Publishing, 2014)