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Gary Numan: ‘Fame is like jumping onto a speeding train. At some point you lose your grip’

The electro icon struggled with success and lost his spark, but thankfully the love of his life reignited it for him.

Gary Numan was born Gary Webb in Hammersmith, West London in 1958. On only child (although his parents adopted his cousin John when Numan was seven), Numan got a guitar when he was 15, and having left school with no qualifications took on a variety of jobs including forklift truck driver and accounts clerk.

Music was his all-consuming passion, and he came to prominence at the end of the Seventies with his band Tubeway Army. The guitar gave way to a synth-led approach, and the band scored a UK number one with Are ‘Friends’ Electric? in 1979, a song reportedly based on Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, also the bedrock for the 1982 sc-fi classic film Blade Runner.

Numan then went solo, scoring another number one single with Cars the same year, before a big run of success. Then the hits dried up, although patronage from a number of musicians including Dave Grohl and Billy Corgan, plus the likes of Basement Jaxx and Sugababes sampling his work saw him lauded as an influential artist and eventually helped him back to the charts.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, he reflects on his early success, how Asperger’s meant he struggles to cope, and how his wife Gemma helped him resurrect his career.

I had a lot of trouble at school when I was a teenager. I was really bright when I was younger and there was a feeling that I was on my way, I was going to have a good academic background. I think my mum and dad were very happy at that point. But I’ve got Asperger’s and that really started to show itself. And that coincided with me realising I wanted to be a musician or pop star. So school became an obstacle, and I became quite troubled. I’m not a rebel and I’m not a feisty sort of person, but I didn’t like authority wielded in a heavy-handed way. I got expelled from the school and came out with no qualifications whatsoever. So the end result of my schooling was completely the opposite of what my parents had hoped it would be. 

Teenagers are self-obsessed to a ridiculous degree. You and your own future is the only thing that matters. You’re unaware of the hurt and the worry that you’re causing. I knew my dad was angry when I was expelled, but I didn’t know he was hurt until years and years later. I’ve now seen all these letters from the school and letters from psychiatrists, and there’s my dad fighting to keep me in school, doing everything he could. I wasn’t aware of any of that and at the time I wouldn’t have cared. Quite terrible really. Luckily, the music thing took off quite quickly afterwards.  

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Tubeway Army
1979: With his band Tubeway Army as fame beckons Photo: John Rodgers/Redferns

I had the best childhood you could have. I was always made to feel like I was the most important thing in the world and I could do anything I wanted. My parents never put down any stupid idea or made me feel like I couldn’t do the most ridiculous things, like trying to be a pop star. They didn’t punish me in any way for messing up school. They got me the equipment I needed to make music. 

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I wish I could go back and explain to my teenage self that he has Asperger’s, and what that really means. I think it would have helped me understand why I had problems. Instead I just felt that I was unlikable. I was sent to a doctor in London when I was 14, my regret is that I wasn’t interested in anything he said. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. I thought the whole world was wrong and I was right. I remember the Asperger’s thing being mentioned then, and I have a vague memory of my mum being unhappy with that. She thought it was a reflection on her parenting. So we pretty much stopped going. They put me on Valium for a year, and when that finished we never went back. In hindsight I wish I’d had some understanding at the time of what was wrong. But then, that feeling of being unlikable and alone and misunderstood shaped my writing. If I’d understood myself better, I might not have written that stuff. And I might not have had the career I’ve had.

It’s easy to look at all the mistakes that you made, and wish that you could go back and fix them. But the mistakes make a shape to the life you have now. So if you go back and fix them, the trajectory of your life might change. I made really big mistakes – retiring at Wembley is the obvious one [in 1981, after two years of huge global success, he announced at the age of 23 his retirement from touring onstage at London’s Wembley Arena]. There are some really major things I wish I’d never said, people I’ve hurt and have enormous regrets over, and definitely the way I let my mum and dad down at school. But I’ve lived the life I’ve had because of those mistakes. 

Gary Numan Wembley Arena
1981: Backstage at his ‘retirement’ show at London’s Wembley Arena Photo: Solomon N’Jie/Getty Images

The biggest thing that can happen to most musicians is to be number one. To do it twice in one year, with a single and an album [debut solo single Cars and debut solo album The Pleasure Principle topped the UK charts in 1979, as did his band Tubeway Army’s final single Are ‘Friends’ Electric?], was just phenomenal. I was aware of how brilliant that was. But that’s just the glossy side of it. There’s a whole other side of fame which arrives just as quickly and it’s just as enormous. That’s much more difficult to deal with but you have to pretend it isn’t, because it spoils the image of everything about success being great. 

Some people do love it and thrive in it, like they were made to be famous. Some people get druggie and drinkie and some even die. And some are like me – this bit is great, but I can’t get through all the stuff that comes with it. It’s like jumping on to a speeding train. It’s thrilling and incredibly exciting at first, but then it gets frightening and horrible, and you’re getting bashed to fuck. At some point, you just lose your grip and fall off, and then you find yourself in the middle of nowhere. 

It took me such a long time to find my way back on track. In 2013 I got to number 20. The album after that was number two, and my most recent one was number two. So that’s three chart albums in recent years, after decades of no triumphs at all, when I couldn’t even get reviewed. In 1994 I didn’t even have a record deal. I literally couldn’t give away tickets for gigs.

I don’t think I would be here if I hadn’t met my wife Gemma. I don’t think I’d have rediscovered that spark. I don’t think I’d be the person I am, for fucking sure. She’s made me so much nicer than I was. I’ve never been a horrible or mean person, but the way I processed my Asperger’s back then was very, very different to the way I do now. She’s taught me how to recognise it and come up with mechanisms to get around it. I’d be a hermit in a fucking treehouse if it wasn’t for her forcing me to get out into the world. I really rely on her. To this day, when I feel a kick under the table I know I’m saying something I should really think about. 

We’ve got people working on the house right now, and I don’t want to be on my own in the room with them because I don’t know what to say. But yesterday Gemma had to go and answer the door. So I had to be on my own with them for 30 seconds. I’m panicking, I’m trying to look busy, wondering if I can pretend a phone call has come in, anything. She’s the buffer between me and the world. 

Gary Numan and family
2019: With wife Gemma and daughters Persia, Echo and Raven PHOTO: SOLOMON N’JIE/GETTY IMAGES

There was a point when Gemma was just coming out of a difficult period [she suffered postnatal depression after the birth of their daughters] and I was going into what she calls a Forrest Gump period. It got difficult between us. I had no ambition and nothing bothered me. I didn’t write a song for two years. They put me on these tablets but they just mellowed me out. She realised what was happening and started to do what was necessary to bring me back out there and get me off the tablets.

I started writing a song called Lost. I intended it to be a long list of things I was having to put up with, why I was right, and why I was leaving. But it ended up being a long list of all the things that were brilliant about her. That’s the beauty of thinking deeply I guess. When you’re arguing you just remember your last argument. You don’t remember the good things about people, you don’t remember why you love them. After I wrote that song I just went to her and said sorry. And we were instantly right back on track. 

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If I could have one last conversation with anyone I’d go back to see my mum two weeks before she died. When she was still talking. We knew she had a few different cancers but I still thought she had years left. I was in America and she had gone to hospital with pain in her foot and, as I understood it, very quickly my dad was told she’s going to die any day. He rang me up and said, you need to get here now. We were on a plane within about three hours. But by the time I got there, she wasn’t talking any more. So I didn’t get to say anything to her. It would be good to have the chance to get on that plane two weeks earlier. 

Gary Numan Resurrection airs on August 13 at 9pm on Sky Arts (Freeview Channel 11) and Now

Interview: Jane Graham

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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