Last night I lost my oldest and dearest friend, Ben Buchanan. He slipped away shortly after 11pm, with his beloved Maria, Max and Penny at his side. I said my goodbyes to him a few hours earlier.
We met when we were both 17, in our first jobs as porters at Christie’s. At first I was commuting from my parents’ in Essex but after a few weeks we became friends and he offered me a room at his mum’s flat in Southwell Gardens, off Gloucester Road.
I lived there for a happy year, enjoying my freedom from 10 years of hated boarding school and making a friendship that would last for life. A friendship that has now been cruelly ended.
Ben was very much a London boy: when we took a train to my parents he pointed out of the window at a creature grazing in a field. “Oh look! A horse!” he cried. “Those are cows,” I said, laughing. “Oh yeah,” he replied. “I’ve seen them on TV.”
We bonded over music, especially the immortal night we went to see Patti Smith at The Roundhouse in 1976, launching an era of punk gigs (though I recall the first three we saw were Queen, Kiss and Blue Oyster Cult).
Punk was a natural path for Ben to follow: he had gone to Kingsway College with John Lydon and John Beverley – soon to become Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious – and once foolishly swapped his leather motorcycle jacket with Sid, inadvertently launching punk’s signature style.
When we were 20 we went on our first foreign holidays away from parents: a Hunter S. Thompson-inspired odyssey to Berlin via Amsterdam in my red Mini.
We were young and naive: in Amsterdam we nervously navigated the canals and cobbled streets in search of the notorious Bulldog cafe, at the time a tiny ‘normal-looking’ bar. I remember going up to the barman who asked: “Do you want anything?” “Yes!” I replied eagerly. “Beer? Cola?” he inquired. “Er, no….” After a brief silence he got it. “You want to buy pot? Around the corner in the basement.”
There was then more embarrassment around the corner when a woman in lingerie tapped insistently on the glass window of her red-light booth. “No thanks!” we said, blushing. She opened the door and said: “I’m trying to tell you the door to the coffee shop is just over there.”
We thanked her and plunged into a gloomy basement filled with soft furnishings and terrible prog rock music where we bought a minuscule amount of hash before needlessly driving out of town to some faraway field where we guiltily smoked it while expecting to be arrested at any moment. We weren’t.
I remember listening to PiL’s Metal Box as we drove through the grim grey corridor through East Germany in incessant rain as the cassette played Poptones. And I remember our car being virtually disassembled by border guards at Checkpoint Charlie before we drove into East Berlin where people ran away in fear every time we tried to chat to them.
One night in the West we were pulled over by armed police who stuck a handgun in my face; when we left we managed somehow to get lost in the countryside in Communist East Germany without any papers, finding ourselves in the middle of a military convoy at a railway crossing, certain we would be arrested. But we weren’t.
Heading home, we lost a windscreen wiper in a torrential rainstorm that followed us for 500 miles as we raced to catch a ferry from Zeebrugge. But we made it, and I cleaned Ben out of his meagre savings at backgammon on the ship, running up a huge debt as he increased the odds with every roll of the dice. And of course I never claimed my winnings.
Soon after that Ben went on his own odyssey – a trip to New York that ended up in San Francisco, where he saw that famous final performance by The Sex Pistols and house-sat for Jello Biafra while The Dead Kennedys wre on tour – then LA, then back to NYC.
It lasted 20 years and we had more adventures in all those places, including two memorable cross-country road trips from New York to California (via Atlantic City, Memphis and Nashville, New Orleans, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona), one of them with Pigeon O’Brien after we offered her a ride in a club at about 3am of the day we left.
“Give me time to quit my job and pick me up at midday,” she said. And she did, and we did, and she drove barefoot through the desert til we stopped late at night in Texas to drink tequila and lie on the bonnet smoking grass and looking up at the biggest sky I’d ever seen.
I discovered New York through his eyes, staying at his huge loft on 2nd and B in what was then a shady area called Alphabet City, waking up my first night to find the Fire Brigade climbing through the window after mistaking the log fire’s reflection for a blaze, making friends that have lasted for life and meeting more glamorous girlfriends and exes than I had thought possible for one man to accumulate.
My very first sight, as a cab dropped me off there, was a dealer in the middle of the intersection yelling “Works!” while an NYPD cop swung his nightstick uninterestedly a few feet away in front of a huge graffiti sign that I never did understand – “No Way Norway” – and salsa music blared from every window and doorway.
I would spend many an evening in nightclubs, mostly Area (and later MK) where Ben was employed as house photographer, hanging out with Warhol and Basquiat, and in the Gas Station bar outside his home, and the after-hours joint Save The Robots, and the scary World club on Avenue D where a bouncer once pulled a gun on me for laughing when he frisked me.
In LA he lived off Beachwood, high up towards the Hollywood sign, where he would park his huge white 1960 Ford Mercury convertible: a beast of a car that did about six miles to the gallon and was so heavy that if you parked on the wrong side of the steep hill you had to hop over the door to get out.
I remember going to the film company where he was working, on a back street in Hollywood next to an emporium with (I swear I remember this right) the name Ye Olde Sex Shoppe. And when I asked to see the sights he took me not to Disneyland or Universal Studios but to a topless carwash and the La Brea Tar Pits – a bubbling black pond with a fibreglass mammoth.
We reconnected more regularly when he returned to London in the Nineties, to his old haunt of Notting Hill where his mum now lived in a mews house off All Saints Road, and he came as near as Ben ever would to settling down, with a new girlfriend, Penny, and a son, Max.
We resumed our old friendship, going to exhibitions, films and gigs, where Ben would invariably ask me if he’d seen this band or been to this venue before. We even managed another road trip, this time to Barcelona to escape unseasonal snowstorms in our first port of call, his mum’s holiday home in Limoux in the south-west France.
Then, more recently, he was struck down by this dreadful disease, just as there was a sudden revival of interest in his photography thanks to a travelling exhibition of his old friend Jean-Michel Basquiat. His pictures were used and he was invited to openings all over Europe.
We were planning to go to Montreal together for another opening when his fucking cancer came back. He was optimistic – of course he was – but the outlook was bleak and the trip was impossible.
The only consolation was that through his illness he found love again with Maria, whom he married earlier this year and who has cared tirelessly and lovingly for him right to the bitter end, accompanied by his other constant companion, a neighbourhood cat who adopted him several years ago.
And it is bitter. It’s cruel and unfair, and it’s horrible – for him and for all of us who knew and loved him.
RIP my best friend Ben x