If there were any justice in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, Simon Mason and his band of merry recovering misfits would be stomping holes through the wooden floorboards of stages from Barcelona to Bangkok, anthemic power chords cutting through heavy-hanging cigarette smoke that mixes with the sweat of Pete Townshend levels of exertion to swallow the assembled masses like the yawning maw of a beast that feeds on celebration.
Justice, however, is something Mason is all too familiar with — or rather, the lack of it even when it was deserved. There’s a saying in recovery he and so many others who have clawed their way out of addiction keep close to heart:
Justice is when you get what you deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve. And grace is when you get what you don’t deserve. Mason’s story is filled with all of the above, but these days, quarantining away from the teeming masses of London in an English seaside town, he’s still flying his pirate flag proudly, looking forward to the days when he can take the stage again — any stage — and share it all with the bombastic exuberance that makes the Hightown Pirates a worthy successor to American contemporaries like The Hold Steady and The Gaslight Anthem.
“When we started the Hightown Pirates, we weren’t all in recovery,” Mason told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “Some of us were and some of us weren’t, but it came about pretty quickly. For the new album, though, everyone on that record, and the studio we did it in as well, were all in recovery — and moving forward, that’s how it’s going to be. It’s not that I have a problem being around people who want to use, but there’s just this energy when you’re with your people.
“I’m not a religious person, but I do feel a certain energy when I’m with my tribe. We have the artists and the musicians, and even in the studio we use, both of the guys are long-time sober. We’re about to make a documentary to accompany a new record, and an EP that might be an LP, depending on some things. But the name of the documentary and the record is going to be ‘The Other Side of Nothing.’ Look up nothing in the dictionary, and it says, ‘Null; void; no prospects.’
“Now, some people would call that a rock bottom,” he added with a laugh. “I don’t want this film and record to be drug addiction specific, but I have this dream that at some point in the future, we can gather our Hightown Pirates full band — gospel singers, the whole thing — and do shows for the people who like that kind of music.”
Simon Mason: A sailor's longing
Nothing, in a sense, applies to so much more than just those who crawl into the rooms of recovery, beaten and broken by the nail-studded ball bat of addiction. Mason is intimately familiar with that pummeling: He showed up and stayed in 2006, slowly putting together a life so far removed from the glamorous highlights of a backstage festival drug dealer that he seems like a character straight out of the pages of a Chuck Palahniuk novel.
These days, he’s accumulated much — some tangible effects, but the wealth of spirit he’s amassed since he got clean and sober boggles the mind. It also makes him keenly aware of how much his fellow men and women have lost, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When I talk about nothing, it’s that point that so many people in society are going to be facing on a daily basis — the unemployment, the struggle — and what’s on the other side of that nothing? That’s what we’re going to demonstrate (in Hightown Pirates),” he said. “It goes back to being on the beach, looking out at the horizon and staring out to see, knowing that there’s a better place out there — but we need each other to make that journey. Those millions of souls who left Liverpool and washed up in New York didn’t get there on their own — they needed help to get them there.”
The sea has long played a provocative role in Mason’s life, going back to his childhood in Weston-super-Mare — “this tiny little seaside town in Nowheresville,” he added, where as a young man, he would walk out to the sand dunes with his mates to get high. It wouldn’t be until later, after spending the bulk of his life living in London, that he came to realize that sitting on the sand, staring out at the cold waters of the Bristol Channel, fueled a yearning for more that he would later fill with all manner of drugs.
“Staring out to sea and seeing the water, I no longer feel trapped,” he said.
Even the name of his band is taken from his love of the sea, particularly a walk with Mick Head, the vocalist and guitarist for the band Shack. Outside of Britain, Shack didn’t get a lot of exposure, but after forming in the late 1980s, the group seemed on the verge of big things for the next decade. Shack opened for The Who, and Noel Gallagher of Oasis often cited the band as an influence. A few years back, Head was struggling, and his management company asked Mason to offer him moral support.
“So I went up to Liverpool to see him, and we were having a walk one day on the beach, and we ended up in Hightown (a parish to Liverpool’s north) on this walk,” Mason said. “Mick was drinking, and he said, ‘Let’s have a game of fantasy rock ‘n’ roll band — who would be your drummer?’ It’s just this thing that all bands do. But then he said, ‘Now, how about fantasy pirate ship?’”
“Hightown Pirates” — it made for a chuckle between the two friends, but at that moment, the pair found themselves on Crosby Beach, where an art installation by Antony Gormley stands to this day: 100 cast iron, life-sized figures, all based on the artist himself, staring out to sea, stretched up and down the sand and even into the water.
It was, he realized, a metaphor for addiction: frozen in place and time, forlornly looking toward a horizon that will never arrive as long as the shackles of drugs are wound tight. And if recovery has taught him anything, he said, it’s that those shackles have been laid down … and he never has to put them back on again.
A young boy's loss, and the balm of rock 'n' roll
It’s a lesson that Mason learned through a personal baptism by spiritual fire, losing his father as an 11-year-old boy. His old man, he said, would play a large role later in life in the music Mason came to incorporate into his own rock ‘n’ roll sounds. For years, he added, he assumed his love of horns was adopted from the “Northern soul” movement of England’s north country, adopted in the late ’60s as an antithesis to the prog and psych rock of Britain’s youth.
“My dad was born in 1922 and had me quite late in life,” Mason said. “He was a pilot in the Royal Air Force, and he was surrounded by music by Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman and the like — that Big Band sound. That was their rock ‘n’ roll, and it was the sound the U.S. servicemen brought with them when they came to England, kind of like the British Invasion in reverse.
“We had one of those big old hi-fi stereos in the 1970s, and his stack of vinyl all had that Big Band sound. That’s where my love of that, I think, comes from, because it’s vibrant. It’s alive, and it swings.”
His father’s death left a huge hole in his heart: Not only was he the family patriarch, he was a war hero, a Jewish boy who flew bombing missions during World War 2 against the impending Nazi threat.
“I don’t know how much more hero you could get, and to lose that was hard on a young boy,” he said. “Then, in quick succession, I lost my aunt, who committed suicide because of addiction. Then, one of my classmates in elementary school dropped dead in front of me. My grandfather came to stay with me, and he passed away 18 months later. So the impact of that was really dark. There was no childhood anymore.”
Rock ‘n’ roll, however, stepped in to fill the void. At 12 years old, he went to his first rock show — The Jam, the British Mod Revival outfit led by Paul Weller, which played an all-ages show in 1981. It wasn’t difficult, he added, to connect that band’s lineage back to The Who, which provided a blanket of comfort to a boy on the cusp of his teenage years struggling with anger and emotional pain.
“If you want to be hurt and angry, listen to The Who, because they’re gonna help,” he said with a chuckle.
Around that time, he began seeking out additional ways to change the way he felt. He picked up cigarettes when he was 12 and got high for the first time when he was 14. He left school “under a bit of a cloud,” he added, and fell in with friends who introduced him to weed, hash and opium. Getting high and listening to The Who’s “Quadrophenia” was a jaw-dropping experience, he said, and from that point forward, music and drugs went hand-in-hand.
Simon Mason: Drug dealer to rock stars
For the next several decades, Mason found himself stumbling into opportunities that increased his exposure to both. A move to London introduced him to the wonders and vagaries of the big city, and buying dope for himself slowly transitioned to buying a bit more to sell to others. He started out attending the Glastonbury Festival as a fan, where he worked his way backstage as the guy to whom performers turned when they needed to fly high or come down.
He came to America for a bit in the late 1980s, where his discovery of crack turned his dalliance with cocaine into a full-blown addiction. Back home, he eased up and started a number of bands, only to find the lifestyle more alluring than the music itself. Glastonbury in 1989 is still one of those urban legends in the Simon Mason mythos, one that saw him riding a motorcycle across the festival grounds, blasted on opium, to deliver one drug to a band that would introduce him to another: Ecstasy. “All of the Above,” in fact, takes its title from those days, because numerous attempts at drug and alcohol treatment made him intimately familiar with the intake paperwork and the boxes to be checked for drugs currently being used: In Mason’s case, it was always “all of the above.”
His connections land him a position as an intimate associate of Oasis, right before the band’s breakthrough debut “Definitely Maybe” was released in 1994. He was a procurer of whatever the Gallagher brothers and their bandmates needed, but the boys also recognize in Mason an ear for good songs and sublime sounds. Noel, the story goes, once asked Mason if he was interested in joining Oasis after another spat with his younger brother, only it was during the din of a roaring party, and the next morning, everyone in attendance was so physically destroyed that it was chalked up to drunken excess.
In print, his story reads like the script for a Danny Boyle film: Running his own pharmaceutical booth backstage at Glastonbury ’94 … being asked, and turning down, an opportunity to manage the anarchistic graffiti art career of a mate who would later be known to the world as Banksy … introducing Oasis on stage … contributing handclaps to the band’s non-album single “Whatever” … cultivating a reputation as the aristocratic dealer to Britpop’s rock stars who eventually fell headfirst into the chemicals he sold to others.
“I say this all the time: Over 20 years, the first five were fantastic, and I wouldn’t change a thing. The next five certainly had their moments. But by the time I was at Knebworth (Festival) in 1996, I was in big trouble with heroin — but then, you’re never in a little trouble with heroin,” he said. “I left the show before (Oasis) even played. I had gone out to watch the show, having been backstage doing my thing and trying to make some money, and I started to sweat. So I thought I’d go into this portable toilet to do a bit.
“I tell you what fear is: Being backstage at an Oasis show and having no heroin to take the edge off after you just smoked a rock. I started digging for my stash, and it wasn’t there. I thought, ‘OK, maybe I tucked it in my sneaker,’ but I knew it wasn’t there. I got naked in that portable toilet looking for it, and I knew, right then, that I was leaving the show, because you can’t walk around backstage asking for that drug. I have this image in my head of 120,000 people coming into this show, all coming in one way, and I’m going the other way.
“That was in 1996, and I didn’t get clean for another 10 years,” he added.
Simon Mason: How a resurrection really feels
There were attempts — in 1999, he managed to put together 10 months, but ringing in a new millennium without a toast seemed unfathomable, and that, of course, led him right back to his old ways. Rehabs here and there … a sabbatical to Thailand to clean up … none of it worked, and by 2005, he was tired, so tired, and ready to throw in the towel.
“I was at that point where I didn’t care anymore,” he said. “When you buy street drugs, you don’t know what the percentage is — it can be stamped on 10 times, or not at all, and that’s the Russian roulette we play, but at that point, I didn’t care. I bought a gram of heroin, a gram of crack, put them in a spoon and thought, ‘Good night.’ I just didn’t care.
“Fortunately, the person I was with had a prescription for Dexedrine, and once he saw I’d gone over, he gave me a hit of it. He saved my life, essentially, and that was about a year before I got clean. The last year involved that on a kind of daily basis, until it was just complete abandonment, and I ended up living in Spain as part of this caravan.”
By that point, all of the “I’ll never” lines in the sand had been crossed, and everything Mason told himself he wouldn’t succumb to in order to feed his addiction, he eventually did. Looking back, it was a wonder he didn’t die, but today he believes his Higher Power had a reason for keeping him around — and in May 2006, he got the phone call that would save his life.
“My sister tracked me down, and she said my then 10-year-old nephew wanted to speak to me, so she put him on the phone,” he said. “He basically said that he wanted me to take him to a (soccer) game before I died, and I think there was something in that innocence, the way he said it on the phone, that was this smart bomb of truth that managed to evade my bullshit detector. It hit home, and I went to a meeting a couple of days later.”
He was familiar with 12 Step recovery, but this time around, desperation opened his eyes to the potential recovery meetings offered to people in his position. One of the first salutations from a meeting attendee was, “It’s nice to see you,” and it occurred to Mason that he hadn’t heard that phrase spoken to him directly in a long, long time.
“Someone gave me a hug, someone made me a cup of tea, someone gave me a stale biscuit, and I went home and flushed what I had left down the toilet,” he said. “I see that as my point of surrender — watching that stuff go down the toilet — and I got clean, cold turkey, in meetings. People came to me and picked me up and took me to meetings and showed me love, and that’s why I stayed, because that’s what I needed.
“For my first six months, it had very little to do with the program. It was about the fellowship. I didn’t know what day of the week it was, because I wasn’t sleeping, and I was in a bad way. But what I did know was that these crazy-ass people were showing up to pick me up and lift me up and tell me, ‘You never have to use again.’ And eventually the voice of people in recovery became louder than the voice saying, ‘You know you’re going to use again, because you’re a worthless piece of shit, and that’s what you do.’”
Serendipity and The Hold Steady
Except … he didn’t. He also didn’t get his life “back,” as some people claim to want when they get clean and sober: He set out building a new one, and in so doing, he was able to draw on his rock ‘n’ roll connections, weld them together to newfound musical tastes and create something amazing. Those tastes, he said, began to expand when he had about a year clean, was home in his apartment and turned on Jools Holland.
“One of the many personal tragedies of my addiction was that I stopped listening to music — because I didn’t have anything to listen to on, because I sold it!” he said. “So I had no idea what was going on in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. So I’m sitting at home, a year in, having just come back from a meeting, and I put the TV on. And there was The Hold Steady, playing ‘Stuck Between Stations.’ And I had the same kind of sit-up-and-take-notice moment that I’d had when I was 11 and saw The Jam on TV.
“It was like, ‘What is this? Who are these guys?’ And I remember when I heard (singer) Craig Finn single that line: ‘She was a really cool kisser but she wasn’t all that great of a Christian,’ and they had me. I went out and bought the first three records the next day, and that was the first time I’d done that with a band in 15 years.”
Recovery, rock ‘n’ roll rebirth and The Hold Steady seem to go hand in hand for Mason, and he makes no bones about his Hightown Pirates bucket list: Opening for that band in America. At the time, however, all he knew was that he’d discovered something that made him feel alive again, and serendipity made sure it stuck: Not long after, at a meeting, he exchanged numbers with a guy who was new to the group. They met up for coffee, and it turns out that the newcomer was part of The Hold Steady entourage. The band was in London for a show, and he offered Mason a spot on the guest list.
“That’s when I said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on with this recovery thing, but I’m not leaving!’” he said with a laugh.
The day of the show, he arrived at the venue early and caught the guys coming out of soundcheck. Looking back, he introduced himself with all the enthusiasm of a blithering idiot — “I’m Simon and I used to be a junkie but I’m not now and I’m not mental, I swear!” — but the guys were gracious and kind and asked him if he would be there later that night. Indeed, he told them: First show since getting into recovery, and sure enough, that night he was front row center as The Hold Steady played most of “Boys and Girls in America” and “Separation Sunday.” For the encore, the guys came back out and lavished the audience with praise for embracing a bar band from America, then Finn began to tell the story of a British chap the guys had met that afternoon.
“Simon, this one’s for you,” he called out, right before The Hold Steady launched into “Killer Parties,” something with which Mason was all too familiar.
“I’m literally in tears, and I just remember walking out of the show and thinking, ‘There is nothing in life I can’t do because I’m in recovery,’” he said. “It was like me being a child again, only without all of the trauma and shit, and that’s when I realized: I’m staying. I don’t need to walk away from this recovery thing.”
Simon Mason: Birth of a Pirate
A week later, he had put together his first band in recovery, The Should Be Deads. That group got an opportunity to play the Narcotics Anonymous World Convention in Barcelona, banging out a loud set of covers by The Who, The Doors, the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground. That band ran its course, and then Mason set out to write a book about his experiences. “Too High, Too Far, Too Soon” was glimpse into the wild ride that’s been his life up to a certain point, but now he’s working on an updated version that includes more of the good stuff that recovery has brought him — including the resurrection of his own music dreams.
Once word of his sobriety started to make its way through the British music scene, industry executives took note. If Mason could get clean, they realized, then sobriety was possible for many of the individuals whose music made them money. Contacting him to serve as a sober concigliere wasn’t entirely altruistic, but Mason’s agreement always was, and a few years ago, he went on tour with The Libertines as a confidant for frontman Pete Doherty. He’d already taken that walk, and the name Hightown Pirates was clanging around in his head, but for the time being, it was merely a dream.
“I hadn’t been in a band doing my own music since the ’90s or the early part of the millennium, but I had aspirations to do that,” he said. “While I was on tour with The Libertines for three months, I was like, ‘I miss this. I miss the shows, I miss the connection,’ and in speaking with Pete one night, I said, ‘I wonder what this would be like.’”
Doherty remembered their conversation, and when he booked a small solo tour, he asked Mason to come along as an opening act. He could, Doherty suggested, read passages from “Too High, Too Far, Too Soon” and play some of his acoustic songs. By that point, Mason had begun to write again, inspired by Mick Head, who got sober on Mason’s couch.
“My daughter, Tabitha, was 7 at the time, and I remember she came in the front room and said, ‘I can’t sleep, Daddy,’ even though she probably just wanted to stay up with the grownups,” he said. “Mick picked up my acoustic guitar and literally blew the dust off and said, ‘Tabitha, sit on your Daddy’s knee,’ and then he played for just us this set of his greatest hits. Afterward, he was crying, and I was crying, and he handed me the guitar back and said, ‘You need to start writing songs again.’”
He did, as well as dusting off old ones, including “Just For Today,” which would find a place on the 2017 Hightown Pirates album “Dry and Deluxe.” At the time, however, it was just a song Mason played during those opening sets … until, after the tour, the phone rang in the studio where Doherty was cutting some tracks. The caller asked to speak to Mason and wanted to know where to find “Just For Today” online. It didn’t exist yet, he told the caller, who then said, “You should record it. How much money do you need?”
“This person said, ‘I see you’re trying to help people, and I want to help you,’” he added. “Here I was, standing in this beautiful little studio on the side of the River Thames, and I didn’t even have a band. But the studio had eight days available, so I made five phone calls. Drummer first, because you’ve got to lock him in, and within half an hour, I had a band. We had never played before, but we did five rehearsals, went back to the same studio and cut the record in six days.”
That song, perhaps more than any other, sums up what Mason, and the Hightown Pirates, are all about. At about the 4-minute, 30-second mark, the song dips down before roaring back on a maelstrom of horns and gospel singers, and in it is the joy and celebration and staggering gratitude with which his life in recovery has been built around.
“It just explodes into this anthemic celebration and joy, and that’s what we’re about,” he said.
That was roughly four years ago, and the Hightown Pirates continue to push forward. Whether they’ll wind up on a future Glastonbury stage is anyone’s guess. They should, because the music is just that good, but even if they don’t, Mason never forgets that walk with Head, on that beach, and the realization of what those statues meant for him, and so many others who struggle to find light on the other side of addiction’s darkness.
“That day, with my friend who was still in the grip of it, we looked at these statues, and they looked so lonely and so disconnected, just buried in the sand up to their necks, all looking out to sea,” Mason recalled. “Here they were, looking out to the horizon, just up from the port of Liverpool, where millions emigrated to the United States in hopes of a new world and a better life. And I told him, ‘What you see, right here, right now, is not where you have to stay.’”