Ian Watkins: a reaction

Trying to explain the inexplicable, comprehend the incomprehensible, fathom the unfathomable… 

For a couple of years in the 1970s I was a London Transport bus conductor based at Shepherd’s Bush garage in west London (note for younger readers: a ‘bus conductor’ was a once common occupation long since extinguished by technology – like dung collector, chimney sweep or somebody answering the phone at a call centre). In the busy canteen under the thundering tube trains of the Hammersmith & City Line, the idle talk between blokes regularly got around to which lucky bastard would be working a particular afternoon shift on a particular route (105, if I recall). The shift was coveted because it always passed a girls’ school at precisely the right time to pick up a load of young girls in gymslips as they poured through the school gates onto the bus. It was an infants school for girls aged 4 to 11.

These guys weren’t creepy, swivel-eyed dirty old men. They were run-of-the-mill straight men of the era, usually married with children, largely decent and fairly intelligent. In those days such talk was utterly routine and mainstream when men gathered at leisure in groups. More than that, such talk was even at times obligatory if the need ever arose to underline red-bloodedness or brandish a discerning eye. Barely 20, a scruffy longhaired hippy completely at odds with this macho canteen culture, a culture I was already all too familiar with from my Cardiff formative years, I could see right through the sleazy bluster, deep down to the subtext these men were really talking about: power.  And their lack of it.

I never challenged the attitudes. This was the ubiquitous way of things in the 1970s; what would be the point? Anyway, I wasn’t “one of the lads”. I disengaged, spending most of my garage time playing table tennis in the games room  – and developing a fine top-spin backhand in the process, I might add. What is virtually certain is that 99.9% of those men wouldn’t dream of ever acting out their openly-declared sexual preference for young girls. It was all talk, all the pathetic, easy-meat fantasising of pre-Viagra flaccid hubbies…wasn’t it?

Watching Ian Watkins today on a 2002 episode of Never Mind The Buzzcocks, one is struck by his passive-aggressive shyness, nervous fidgeting,  gauche self-regard and mumbling, inarticulate contributions to the programme. There he is, at age 25, Lostprophets on the crest of a wave, a skinny, fey, self-conscious and rather boring goth lad with overworked hair, off-the-shelf attitudes, not much to say for himself and one small tattoo. We all know the type – they’re two a penny round Trefforest. They’re not as clever as they think they are; they’re not as radical as they think they are; they’re not as attractive as they think they are; they usually mean no harm. The only hint of something else going on is accidental: an eerily prescient moment half way through when Mark Lamarr cracks a gag about Gary Glitter and the camera instantly cuts to Watkins forcing out a strained laugh unconvincingly.

Then look at Watkins in his rock-monster pomp of recent years: the beefed-up body always on display; the neck-down riot of tattoos; the heavy-lidded lizard degeneracy, enacted knowingly as if only a sub-Stones parody; the overbearing self-regard and believe-your-own-publicity swagger; the narcissistic self-importance; the glib, rebel-without-a-cause vacuity…it’s clear that he had by then, entirely predictably, evolved into a textbook, died-in-the-wool, out-and-out, Major League WANKER. Literally (literally).

This impression is affirmed by his career path. Who but an absolute wanker would want to front a rock band anyway? It’s the ideal job for someone for whom love isn’t enough, it has to be worship, and for a bighead who needs to be looked at all the time because that’s what he’s used to doing when he’s alone with his full-length mirror. And who but an absolute wanker’s absolute wanker would be drawn to the nu-metal sub-genre, as Lostprophets were? Nu-metal is simply old school heavy metal updated and recycled – ghastly, lumpen, nihilistic ‘cock-rock’, as those of us who wanted alternatives to sexism and gender stereotypes dismissively called heavy metal when it first emerged in the 1970s via bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. It was shit then and it’s even more shit now that it’s freighted with four decades of stadium rock clichés; clapped-out ‘bad boy’ posturings; the self pity, juvenilia and self-conferred ‘specialness’ of the tedious black-eyelinered-and-nail-varnished tribes of emo/grunge/hardcore/grime; the second-hand terminologies and third-rate mental processes borrowed from computer games, comic books and B-movies; and the up-chucked, pop-will-eat-itself regurgitations of postmodernism. Then all is dressed up in leering, naff, hyper-sexualised trappings as redundant and vicarious as Carry On Matron and as erotic and transgressive as the Ann Summers catalogue.

Drugs are important. One of the reasons young Watkins got into metal (as opposed to, say, singer-songwriter acoustic noodlings) would be because the genre’s drugs of choice (speed, coke, smack, crystal meth, alcohol, uppers, downers) fitted his temperament. Going back to the 70s again, if you gravitated towards mind-expanding drugs like cannabis, LSD and mushrooms you sought musicianship, thoughtfulness, modernism and creativity in music; whereas if you liked the mind-shrinking drug experience the inept thrashings and corny tropes of metal were home from home. In short, Watkins’ musical career divulges stupidity, crudity, laziness and cowardice.

Further clues to his personality come from a photo taken a couple of years ago of him with his poor, poor mother: unconditional, unquestioning adoration radiates out of her every pore as she gazes at her boy, the apple of her eye, the love of her life. In the same way that you can be loved too little, you can be loved too much. Too much love from one all-encompassing source, not counter-balanced by more sceptical, realistic, challenging loves from other sources can turn a suggestive child (particularly a boy) into a self-obsessed egotist with a gigantic sense of entitlement, doomed to promiscuity in an impossible search for a love that could compare, trapped in escalating masturbatory fantasies by the contagion of Eros overload. A babe in arms needs this sort of love, but if it continues unchanging through adolescence, teenage years and into manhood it starts to become a partisan hero-worship and an endorsement of infantilism that could be corrosive.

I am not ‘blaming the mother’, nor am I reducing this to the finger-wagging platitude of ‘a boy needs a father’. I am saying that when a parent loves their own child more than anyone or anything else, this is not, as cultural conditioning would have it, the ultimate example of pure, self-sacrificing love. It is the opposite: it is the ultimate example of self-love. A pure love would be to love all children, or a child that doesn’t ‘belong’ to you – not just the one that happened to come out of your own womb. Unless we are prepared to believe it is sheer coincidence that the love object has the same DNA as the subject, this ‘love’ is actually a sly displacement activity to deflect monomania and super-egotism. Here I begin to intuit causes of Watkins’ glaringly incongruent sense of self-worth.

Armed with the ludicrous and obscene riches that are showered on hosts of derivative, conventional performers in the entertainment industry, Watkins was a multi-millionaire by his mid-20s. With this unimaginable wealth at his disposal he opted to spend spend spend on vanity projects, boys’ toys, trophy girlfriends, an LA condominium, Grade A powders and fast cars, ie: on himself. The idiot clearly hadn’t sussed out that it is so much more pleasurable to give than to take. The only time he showed even an inkling of awareness that there was a world beyond his own penis was after a relative died of cancer and he did benefit gigs for cancer charities. But again this only illustrates an autistic inability to relate to anything unless at core it’s really about him – in this case, his loss of his relative. In the harsh light of the life story of ‘Mr Charity’ himself, Sir Jimmy Savile OBE KCSG (1926-2011), the tendency to do charitable works in public is now permanently tarnished, and about time too. From Victorian Lady Bountifuls, through corporate tax-avoidance scams, to has-beens trying to revive careers or plug product on fundraising telethons, ‘charity’ has been twisted into the quick’n’easy go-to subterfuge for concealed motives. Watkins, who can be accused of many things but not subtlety, didn’t even feel the need to fake Savile’s gossamer-thin veneer of phoney ‘care’: for him it was automatic to assume the deeply personal translated into the universal. A common error: the truth is actually the other way round.

Despite all these component parts contributing to make the Ian Watkins of today, none of them alone or in combination could conceivably account for a sexuality that is off the Richter Scale of deviancy. His chilling invocations to “cross the line” and “take it to the next level” reveal that the taboo itself was the turn-on. In his self-affirming and self-authorising hall of mirrors Watkins wanked over the idea of Watkins the sex beast, the devil who trod where others dared not. Hopelessly head-over-heels in love with himself, he hunted the internet for somebody else other than his mother to agree that he was wonderful, and then videoed the sordid encounters to give him lots more wanking material. As his estimation of himself got ever more stratospheric he required his sexual conquests to be ever more awestruck and overwhelmed by his POWER. Even his needy, depressed, besotted, kohl-eyed teenage fans couldn’t assuage that appetite. In the end the hunger could only be satisfied by the totally powerless: animals and babies. It took the most tiny and the most helpless to supply him with the widest and starkest possible contrast and thus best exaggerate and magnify his mightiness.

But, but…nothing I have written in this piece has scratched the surface of Ian Watkins; no punishment Cardiff Crown Court dishes out in December will come close to the devastating, irreparable punishment Watkins has inflicted on himself; all words of condemnation are quite superfluous in the face of such immense crimes. In the end there is only one possible explanation for behaviour so extreme. It is the explanation you don’t want to hear. It is the explanation humans expend huge effort determinedly avoiding. It is the explanation that would save us if we could but bear to embrace it. I think back to those guys in the bus depot all those years ago…I weigh up the unspeakable atrocities of the past 5,000 years of recorded history…and I conclude with the most shocking fact imaginable. Ian Watkins? Typical human…