Frank Price was born again aged twenty-two, on Wednesday, March 2, 1977, while Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers were playing at The Roxy on Neal Street, Covent Garden.
He’d seen the Sex Pistols and they didn’t do it for him, they were fake nihilists, a manufactured pop group, even if Anarchy in the U.K. did shake its hips. As far as Frank was concerned, the Heartbreakers were close to the real deal, and the real deal was Iggy and the Stooges, the New York Dolls, Lou Reed.
The Roxy had the right sleazy subterranean vibe for the band. Once a small warehouse for the Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market, it had recently been Chaguaramas, a gay club way past its short disco heyday, with a small regular clientele of pimps, cross-dressers, rent boys and thieves, with the odd slumming gangster and fashionista.
There was an entrance at street level with a few tables, and a low-ceilinged basement with a small bar, dance floor and stage. Downstairs the walls were emulsioned black and pink, with mirrors and worn red leatherette and maroon velvet seating. Bad speed was everywhere, and a couple of optimistic young black guys were selling ready-made joints. Girls put on make-up and cut themselves on show in the toilets. Already the Roxy was past its peak, and it’d only been open a few months.
Frank liked clothes, so got punk from the start, he just had a few problems with the proscribed soundtrack. His pre-1976 musical tastes were wide: reggae with Marley, Dennis Brown and Toots and the Maytals, US proto-punks like the Stooges and the Dolls, but also soul and funk from Curtis Mayfield, Sly & the Family Stone, Al Green and Funkadelic. And of course, Bowie.
He was here for the Heartbreakers because Johnny Thunders was a former member of the New York Dolls, so was punk royalty. Frank’s hair was short and dark, a severe Lou Reed-inspired cut from the back cover of Rock ’n’ Roll Animal. His Turkish barber on the Mile End Road was a gem.
He wore a black leather biker jacket, white t-shirt, Levis, navy blue Converse All Stars. However he was a working class boy, and wore Christian Dior Eau Sauvage, or the lemony Pour Homme by Yves Saint Laurent. In London being dirty was a thing for hippies and the privileged middle classes.
The Heartbreakers, disheveled and half-stoned, took the stage and after some sweary audience back and forth, launched into Chinese Rocks, their best song. Their oeuvre was mostly love songs to heroin, this one more than most. It was an instant, large and loud distorted wall of sound, heavy on the bass, even in the Roxy.
Three songs into their set Billy Fuck slid up beside him, as the band played Get Off the Phone. Frank was alone, by preference. He knew a few people on the scene, but by nature he was a loner. He’d never seen the point of being anything else.
Billy had come over from New York in late 1976, with the Heartbreakers’ friends and hangers-on, including the soon to be notorious Nancy Spungen, who landed at Heathrow wanting a Sex Pistol, preferably John. The Heartbreakers had raved about how cool London was; the English punk scene, Special Brew, the cheap and often crazy-strong drugs, so they came over in a junkie wave, all black leather jackets, dirty fingernails and snotty arrogance.
‘Hey, Frank. Come upstairs. I’ve got something mad I know you’ll like,’ Billy shouted in his ear. Civilians had their sex and dope in the toilets, Frank knew the faces mostly did their drugs upstairs.
Billy Fuck had a ton of New York attitude and the usual wasted and existentialist charisma. A few weeks before Frank had given him some speed at the Whiskey a Go Go, and now Billy was almost genial, at least for a Heartbreakers hanger-on. He probably saw him as a mark. Frank had no idea of his age; he was thin, everyone was, but Billy looked like he had no body fat at all, a lizard of skin and tight thin muscle. He gave off a big gay vibe, but must’ve realised Frank was straight.
Frank had already swallowed a couple of speckled blues, and had no idea what Billy was carrying, but that was what it was like then. He followed Billy upstairs, and that was the last thing he knew.
Frank woke up two days later in the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, with Dr. Alimantado’s Best Dressed Chicken in Town running around in his head. Later he realised the DJ, Don Letts, was playing it just before the Heartbreakers came on.
There were five shallow puncture wounds along his left arm, probably made with a small knife, each around half an inch long and not more than an inch apart, and he had a gash on the right side of his head above the ear that needed a dozen stitches. He’d lost nearly three pints of blood and had gone into hemorrhagic shock. A cop came to his bed and told him he’d been found in the street. He asked if he knew his assailant, and Frank said he couldn’t remember anything, which was very nearly true.
He was diagnosed with concussion as he couldn’t keep food down. A week later he could eat small amounts at a time, though anything carbohydrate would cause sharp stomach pain and diarrhoea. He left hospital soon after, with a list of foods he couldn’t eat in the short term.
Back in his flat a mile away he struggled to eat, and had painful headaches, but his wounds healed quickly, and he had the stitches in his head removed early. He’d shit blood, or at least his faeces were smeared red, and his urine would often contain dancing coils of light crimson. His doctor at the Royal London was nonplussed, but after a couple of weeks it stopped.
When Frank was fit he went out to find Billy Fuck. He took a big kitchen knife, gaffer-taped inside his leather jacket, to the regular haunts of the Heartbreakers and their loose entourage, mainly around Chelsea, Little Venice and Maida Vale, but was told more than once that Billy had gone back to New York a few days earlier. There was nothing unusual about this, as most of the New Yorkers had misunderstood the London dealers’ rigorous attitude to non-payment, and a few had already returned home realising London was far from a druggy punk Narnia. One of the brethren had already lost most of a finger in Brixton.
Frank Price was born in 1955 in Limehouse, in the East End of London. His father was eastern European, probably a Czech or a Pole, and his mother from somewhere more southern, though she claimed all her life to be of completely English extraction. Frank thought she tanned too well for this to be true.
His parents had married early, and his father up and left when Frank was four. Frank was told he’d joined the merchant navy, and perhaps he had. Either way, he never saw his father again. He could remember something of him: his large dark presence, his earthy smell of garlic, cardamon, lemon and spicy hair oil, but nothing of his appearance.
Limehouse was stained diesel-black from the lorries on the Commercial Road, and he and his mother lived in worn-out rented rooms until he was twelve, when they were given a newly built council flat on a small estate near The Highway. Everything was clean, built in bright alabaster concrete, modern. They had central heating and hot running water, and his mother cried the day they moved in.
She’d been working as a typist and secretary for tailors in Whitechapel and then, when he was fourteen, she began working for a larger import/export company on the Mile End Road. She was still in her early thirties, and he noticed she was dressing better, spending more time on her makeup and appearance in the morning. Frank was sixteen years old and about to leave school when she sat him down to talk. She’d become close to the owner of the company where she worked, and he was divorcing his wife. After the divorce he’d still be wealthy, and then came the plan they’d worked out.
His mother and George would be buying a house in Buckhurst Hill. George was older than his mother and already had children. Frank would stay in the council flat in Limehouse and they’d pay the rent and give him twenty pounds a week. He could take his time and decide what he wanted to do.
He’d seen it coming, and knew all about George Alexandrou. No one in the East End talked to five-o, but gossiped like fish wives amongst their own. He knew George had managed long firms for the Krays back in the day and, for a while, was second only to Leslie Payne as the twins’ business advisor. George was one of the few who got out clean, which probably meant he spoke to the police.
Like George and the feds, Frank and his mother thrashed out a deal. Two grand upfront, the rent and thirty five pounds a week. He could never go to Buckhurst Hill, and he saw his mother again only once, after a fashion.