James Brown: ‘I worry most that my son might do what I did’

James Brown, the publishing pioneer who launched Loaded magazine, on going from citizen cocaine to fretful father

It was Rod Stewart who first mentioned the phrase ‘do as I say not as I do’ to me. We were chatting in a pub garden near his home in Essex. It was a lovely, sunny day, we’d had a kickabout in the car park, and he was having his photograph taken in a botanical garden of a Versace shirt for the front of The Times Saturday magazine.

We were both essentially being paid for being there, and to be honest I couldn’t see too much of what he’d done that wouldn’t have been worth doing. True there are a few moments in his recording career which even he admits are worth skipping over and a period of spandex leggings most would consider criminal but as far as wine, women, song and dance, Rod appears to have had a fairly idyllic life.

Only he wasn’t giving me the advice so much as explaining how he’d tried to pass on some fatherly advice about relationships to his eldest son Sean, who was just turning 18 at the time. Twenty years on I find myself in the same position. Parenting-wise that is, I haven’t moved to Hollywood and started an art-deco lamp collection. Last week my eldest son turned 16 and I find myself in a bizarre position of trying to guide him through the social and educational expectations of his mum, his girlfriend’s mum and himself.

I was living out a life entitled ‘50 Ways to Lose Your Liver’

Throughout his comprehensive school years I’ve had to sit at parents’ evenings and feel like a hypocrite as I’ve nodded along with his mum and his teachers trying to get him to apply himself because his best is really good but too often he prefers the easy route. In truth every one of the conversations we’ve had have been a replay of what my parents were told about me 30 years before at Lawnswood School, Leeds.

Which is what makes me worry most when I wonder whether his future years might replicate mine. Professionally it sounds great. I left school when I was 18, after some terrible mock A-level results. The offer to stay on and kick in was there from my inspirational head of sixth form, David Frost, but I knew I just wanted to go to gigs and write about them. Two years of unemployment and freelance writing later I was on the staff of the New Musical Express in Oxford Street, London. A minor miracle given it was the only job I wanted at a time when few employment opportunities of any kind were available.

So my job was music and journalism – worlds where excessive alcoholic intake was not only accepted but seen as a badge of honour. I’d sit and read books about Iggy Pop and the Stones, others by Hunter Thompson, Charles Bukowski and Jeffrey Bernard. Scanning the Lunchtime O’Booze column in Private Eye for tales of Fleet Street maniacs behaving riotously. And my behaviour responded accordingly, snorting so much speed before an anticipated confrontational interview with Zodiac Mindwarp I came back and puked vodka and orange all over the editor’s office.

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Moving up the editorial ladder, winning awards, travelling round the world, hanging out with heroes, starting my own magazine, Loaded. I was living out a life entitled ‘50 Ways to Lose Your Liver’. My success and ability meant my drunkenness was tolerated.

When my mother died tragically, my excessive self-abusive behaviour just accelerated. And then the rest was well documented in the magazine and the media gossip columns of the day, a man with a champagne bottle permanently grasped in one hand. Citizen Cocaine. But I was lucky, I had a painful but helpful way out thanks to the personnel lady who looked after me when I edited GQ. Live fast, clean-up young and make sure someone else pays for the rehab.

Given the endplay of that lifestyle scared the hell out of me, scared me into getting clean, the fear that my own son might go the same way sits like an ominous vulture on my shoulder. Do we all fear for our children’s future or is it just those of us who can’t believe we’re still here? Or maybe those of us that lost parents young? The imprint of maternal death when I was 26 has remained at the forefront of my mind, through good and bad. I don’t ever want to go through the passing of someone so close again.

Should our past remain a mystery to our children? Google has made family secrets fairly impossible to hide

Since my eldest became a teenager I’ve had to tread cautiously about what I say and do but I guess we all do. Should our past remain a mystery to our children? When I was at school a friend once told me she’d been shocked to find a folder of news clippings in a wardrobe about her dad regularly getting arrested for fighting in Teddy Boy gangs. Google has now made such family secrets fairly impossible to hide.

Once during a media lesson at school when he was 12, Marlais saw one of my Loaded covers online and said: “Dad, me and Finn saw Kylie Minogue on your old magazine, she was in her pants! We had to hide it away when the teacher came over,” he giggled in shock. “Bikini,” I corrected him, “that was the swimwear issue. Inside there’ll have been footballers in their trunks, too.”

When you’ve been enthusiastically reckless with your own life, you don’t want your kids to be the same. I want him to have a good time but I’d rather he looked after himself a little better than I have. ‘Do as I say not as I do’, as Roderick put it.

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I have good friends who know my 16-year-old who pull me aside and say, ‘He’s going to do brilliantly, he’s a great kid’ and ‘Stop projecting your fears and your life experience onto him’, or creative directors at ad agencies who say, ‘Seriously impressed by his photographs’. Which is reassuring. You have to believe in your kids, even when they’re old enough to be brought home by the police but young enough not to put their pants in the laundry room.

As a recovering addict I feel no shame about where I am or what I did, it was what it was, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. Least of all my son. The good times, yes, have them, they’re great, but if you can’t stop yourself getting high you weirdly end up feeling extremely low, and you don’t stop until you hit the bottom.

People sometimes ask me why I’ve been so open and honest in public talks or articles about my drug use and there are a couple of answers. The first is I celebrated the upside so have to also admit to and own the downside of the Loaded life I led in the
excessive 1990s.

I feel no shame about what I did, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. Least of all my son

Maybe showing I came out the other side of 16 years of excessive drinking and drugging might help someone else struggling with it. But, secondly, I’ve only ever told half the story. It would be unfair on others I used with to go into details of who, what, why and where and how much. From teachers to television presenters, they were/are my friends and they have jobs which rely upon a degree of stability and sanity. My job description was ‘good journalist/bad behaviour’, though, so it didn’t matter what I did.

So all this sits in my mind as I try and explain the benefits of revision, not that the subjects are important but that the ability to learn, complete and deliver are skills that will be required whatever he chooses to do in life. Or stress that I never felt the need to do drugs as a school kid, that our brains at that age are wild and free enough not to be enhanced or subdued artificially.

Imagine being 16, it’s the summer you can leave school if you’ve planned a route out, your team has won the FA cup, it’s sunny and you’ve a girlfriend. I’d rather those things even now, aged 51, than another qualification, so I can understand why he doesn’t want to revise.

At least having a girlfriend and exams on his mind has seemingly stopped him climbing 200-metre cranes and towerblocks in the city of London for skyline images for his Instagram account. I’ve never hidden the reason why I don’t drink. It’s not a hard conversation to have with someone you love and care about.

James Brown is the author of Above Head Height – A Five-a- Side Life (Quercus, £16.99) out now in hardback