Once Bjorn-David Cristiansen started at college, he made it pretty clear than the nice clean-cut young man who’d auditioned the previous year had been a curve ball, as he was making no further attempts to conceal his Punk image.
This was compounded by a bizarre hyperactivity that occasionally degenerated into outrageous and even disruptive behaviour. It was as if he was determined to convince the world that he was an artist with a capital “A” and therefore entitled to incessantly attract attention to himself with aberrant behaviour and clothing. And among the items he favoured were slim jim ties, drainpipe jeans, florescent Fifties-style socks, and white leather brothel creepers, but the pièce de résistance was a pair of tight plastic snakeskin trousers which he actually only wore the once.
As if all this weren’t enough to cause eyebrows to raise among the authorities, he insisted on wearing make-up even in classes, although to be fair it was subtly applied, except for gigs and parties, when he really piled on the slap…foundation, eye shadow, blusher, lip rouge, the works. Talk about lipstick, powder and paint.
On one occasion, in the course of a mime class supervised by Don Donovan, a quirky bearded professional mime artist who’d been a regular on children’s TV for a time, the compact he usually carried about with him at all times for sporadic touch-ups fell out of an inner pocket of his jacket during an exercise, before hitting the floor with an embarrassing clatter. All eyes went to the compact, and there was a mortifying silence, which the manic Don mercifully broke by retrieving the offending article from the floor, and furiously daubing peoples’ startled faces with glittery blusher.
Still, his days of wearing slap were numbered. It was as early as ’79, in fact, that he developed some kind of allergic reaction to a certain brown eye shadow, which caused his eyes to become so swollen and sore as to verge on the porcine. Yet, he’d only worn it a little time before, and suffered no ill-effects.
This was during that first gig for the sporadic Folk Nights held at the school in those days in the basement of the nearby Lauderdale Tower…just a few days after his 23rd birthday in October 1978. He was singing for a band he’d formed with some friends, and which he’d chosen to call Narcissus.
He was involved with a string of such bands at the Guildhall, in point of fact, and through one of them, Rockets, he was talent-scouted as lead singer for a guitarist of genius called Don Taylor, who was hoping to form a band himself, and clearly thought David would cut it as a front man; but for some reason, it never came to be.
Don went on to play and write for one of the world’s leading Rock superstars, but at one point he briefly joined a Guildhall-based Jazz-Funk outfit with another then friend of David’s. That band would go on to become one of the most successful Pop acts of the eighties, chalking up one hit after the other in a Britain in which Jazzy Dance music was favoured by flash boys in white socks and tasselled loafers. David was even invited to an early rehearsal, at a time when they might have done with a front man like himself…but of course, he didn’t go.
Through Narcissus, he found only disgrace and humiliation, and not just the once. Narcissus played a grand total of two gigs, both of them fiascos.
The first time they played together was just prior to the forming of the Rockets, and although it had been a disaster due to his drunken upstaging of the other band members, piano player Perry was sufficiently impressed by him to ask him to front the Rockets.
And it was through the Rockets that he was offered the job of front man for Don’s mooted musical project. However, rather than wait for the call from him, David went on ahead and re-formed Narcissus with original members Simon on guitar and John on percussion.
David piled on the make-up, and Simon and John followed suit, but being relatively untainted by personal vanity, the results were unsettling. Sweet-natured Simon painted his Botticellian features like an ancient pagan warrior, while gentle giant John saw fit to smother his with military-style camouflage. Not surprisingly, their set was accompanied by a riot of heckling which although far from malicious, ultimately provoked David to irritation, and he ended up tossing his plectrum into the audience with a sarcastic:
“Here’s to all my loving fans!”
This petulant outburst may have caused no end of harm to his reputation, because the chutzpah of the natural leader who demands and gets attention and respect through the sheer force of his personality was never among his gifts. Rather he was blessed with the seductive charm of the social climber for whom alpha status comes through the subtle exercise of exquisite manners. In this respect, he was a little like Julien Sorel, anti-hero of Stendhal’s “The Scarlet and the Black” who despite humble origins, succeeds in ascending to the very top of the social ladder, only to allow a single act of madness to destroy all his good work.
David’s final band was the ’50s revivalist act Z Cars, which even won a small fan base for itself, its members being Carl Cool, the front man and chief songwriter who had a tattoo painted onto his shoulder, Robert Fitzroy-Square, the geek with the Buddy Holly horn rims, Dave Dean, the hard man of the band with the Sid Viciousstare, and Little Ricky Ticky, the baby at only 18. Things went wrong for them when they tried to deviate from their usual three-chord doo-wop or Rock with more complex songs, starting with a tightly arranged version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama”, complete with harmony backing vocals. Sadly though, they weren’t up to the task, and disillusion swiftly set in. By this time, David had left the Guildhall anyway, and it just wasn’t the same.
There had been emotional scenes at his farewell party held in the depths of the Barbican Estate’s Lauderdale Tower, and some cried openly at the thought of his leaving. During the course of the night, a very dear friend of his, Tamsin, told him to contact Harry Creasey, a London-based impresario and agent well-known for offering young actors their very first positions within the entertainment industry.
David was to take her advice, and sauntering cigarette in hand into Harry’s Denmark Street office a few weeks later, he was confronted by a dark slender man of about forty whose outrageously flamboyant manner was compounded by seismic levels of personal charm, but not before he’d made one of his final ever trips to Spain.
Yet, even though the guys from the band had so wanted him to reclaim his place as front man in Fuengirola, he’d chosen to go to La Ribera with his parents instead, and he felt a deep and overwhelming sense of exhaustion as he stretched out under the Costa Calida sun. It was as if he was already unconsciously aware that his acting career was destined to be a non-event.
Yet, shortly afterwards, he took up his very first official acting job as Christian the Chorus Boy – doubling as Joey the Teddy Bear -complete with furry ursine costume – in a pantomime tour of “Sleeping Beauty”, all thanks to the infinite generosity of Harry Creasy, who wanted David to look as good as possible…
“…because he’s pretty, all right?” he explained, and no one was going to dispute that.
A few weeks after “Sleeping Beauty” had culminated at the Buxton Opera House over Christmas 1979, David appeared in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at both the Bristol and London Old Vics alongside legendary method genius and future Hollywood superstar Daniel Day Lewis.
However, the cast as a whole was incredibly gifted and charismatic, and shortly before the opening night, David was lucky enough to see a BOV production of one of his favourite ever musicals, Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls”, featuring Clive Wood as Sky and Pete Postlethwaite as Nathan, which provided him with more unalloyed pleasure than any other theatrical production he’d seen up to that point. Even seeing the London premiere of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” a few months later failed to top it.
After resuming his role as Mustardeed in the summer, his next acting job came early the following year courtesy of an old family friend, Howell Jones, who just happened to be the Company Stage Manager at the famous Phoenix Theatre on Charing Cross Road at the time.
A production of Petronius’ “Satyricon” was already under way, and they needed an Assistant Stage Manager at the last minute, and Howell suggested David. He’d also be the show’s percussionist, with primal thrumming rhythms opening the show, and featuring throughout.
Also in ’81, David became a kind of part-time member of an initially nameless youth movement whose origins lay in the late 1970s, largely among discontented ex-Punks, but who were eventually dubbed Futurists; and then New Romantics.
Their music of preference included the kind of synthesized Art Rock pioneered by German collectives such as Kraftwerk and Can, as well as the highbrow Glam of David Bowie and Roxy Music. All of these elements went on to inform the music of Spandau Ballet and Visage, who emerged from the original scene at the Blitz Club in Covent Garden, and Ultravox, a former Punk band of some renown whose fortunes revived with the coming of the New Romantics.
The name arose as a result of their impassioned devotion to past eras perceived to be romantic, whether relatively recent ones such as the ’20s or ’40s, or more distant historical ones such as the Medieval or Elizabethan. Ruffs, veils, frills, kilts and so on were common among them, but then so were demob suits.
Several of the cult’s more outlandish trendsetters went on to become famous names within the worlds of art and fashion. They stood in some contrast to more harder-edged young dandies such as the Kemp Brothers from working class Islington. Their Spandau Ballet began life as the hippest band in London, famously introduced as such at the Scala cinema by writer and broadcaster Robert Elms in May 1980. In time, though, they mutated into a chart-friendly band with a penchant for soulful Pop songs such as the international smash hit, “True”.
David attended New Romantic nights at Le Kilt and Le Beat Route among other swishy night spots, and was even snapped at one of these by photographer David Bailey, believed to have served as model for the central figure of Antonioni’s enigmatic evocation of sixties London, “Blow Up”. But he was never a true New Romantic so much as a lone fellow traveller keen to experience first hand the last truly original London music and fashion cult before it imploded as all others had done before it.
Despite its florid decadence, it was always far more mainstream than several other musical movements which arose at the same time in the wake of Punk, such as Post-Punk and Goth.
For this reason, several of its keys acts went on to become part of the New Wave, whose mixture of complex tunes and telegenic Glam image partly inspired the Second British Invasion of the American charts. This occurred thanks largely to a desperate need on the part of the newly arrived Music Television for striking videos, and went on to exert a colossal influence on the development of music and fashion throughout the eighties.
As ’81 wore on, David’s acting career lost momentum, with the result that some kind of family decision was reached to the effect that he should return to his studies with a view to eventually qualifying as a teacher. Thence, he went on to pass interviews for both the University of Exeter, and Westfield College, London, scraping in with two very average “A” level passes at B and C.
He wanted to stay in London, so as to keep the possibility of picking up some acting work in my spare time open, so in the autumn he started a four-year BA degree course in French and Drama mainly at Westfield – but also partly at the nearby Central School of Speech and Drama – while staying in a small room on campus.
At first, he was so discontented at finding himself a student again at 25 that in an attempt to escape his situation, he auditioned for work as an acting Assistant Stage Manager, but he wasn’t taken on…so he simply resigned himself to his fate.
A short time later, though, while sauntering around at night close by to the Central School, he was ambushed by a group of his fellow drama students who may have seemed to him to incarnate the sheer carefree rapturous vitality and joy of life of youth, and because of them and those like them, he came to love his time at Westfield, which just happened to coincide with the first half of the last of a triad of decades in the West of unceasing artistic and social change and experimentation. And Westfield in the early ’80s was a seething hotbed of talent and creativity which provided David with almost unlimited opportunities for acting and performance.
Within days, he’d made a close friend of a fellow French and Drama student by the name of Sebastian Stockbridge.
Seb was a slim, good-looking, dark-haired charmer from the north east of England who, despite a solid private school background and rugby player’s powerful wiry frame, dressed like a Rock star with his left ear graced by a pendant earring and favouring skin-tight jeans worn with black pointed boots. Together, they went on to feature in Brecht and Weill’s’s “The Threepenny Opera”.
David had two small roles, the most fascinating to him being that of petty street thief Filch, as he’d been played by legendary monstre sacré Antonin Artaud in one of two film versions of the play directed by G.W. Pabst in 1931, and Artaud, an example of the avant garde faith in extremis, was one of his most beloved cursed poets.
Through this production he went on to play jive-talking disc jockey Galactic Jack in the musical play “The Tooth of Crime”, its director having been impressed by Seb and himself in “The Threepenny Opera”, and so cast them in the lead role of Hoss, and Galactic Jack, respectively.
It’s no coincidence that its author, Sam Shepard, has gone on record as having been influenced by Artaud in his own work, as the latter’s concept of a Theatre of Cruelty has proved prophetic of much of the theatre of the post-war years, indeed art as a whole, with its emphasis on assailing the senses, and in some cases also the sensibilities, of the public through every available means.
Before long, David was channelling every inch of his will to perform into one play after the other at Westfield, while any real ambition to succeed as an actor receded far into the background.
When it came to his French studies, in his essay writing he often flaunted an insolent outspokenness perhaps partly influenced by his favourite accursed artists, but also reflecting his own exhibitionistic need to shock, and while some of his tutors may have viewed these efforts with a jaundiced eye, one came to thrill to them and await them with the sort of impatience normally accorded a favourite TV or radio series. This was the wonderful Dr Elizabeth Lang, born in Lancashire in 1924, as the only child of working class parents who went on to gain a place at Oxford University, before becoming a lecturer there and then at Westfield.
What an ascent…from humble northern roots to a lectureship at the most hallowed place of learning in history…little wonder she was so fragile, almost febrile as a person, but so kind, so single-minded in her devotion to those who shared her passionate view of art and life:
“Temper your enthusiasm,” she’d tell David, “and the extremes of your reactions. You should have a more conventional frame on which to hang your unconventionality. Don’t push people, you make yourself vulnerable.“
Was she was trying to save him from himself, and from the addiction to self-destruction that so often accompanies extreme distinction, whether of beauty, intelligence or talent…as if it were the lot of some of the most gifted among us to serve as examples of the potentially ruinous nature of privilege when operating in a purely earthly realm?
But David so loved to play the accursed poet…and to scandalise by way of the written and spoken word. How close this carried him to the threshold of a terminally seared conscience it’s impossible to say; but one thing is certain, his compassion would soon suffer, a process that would prove excruciating to him.
That’s not to say he ever fully stopped being a caring person, because he certainly didn’t, and he continued to be repelled to the core by those artistic revolutionaries who advocated actual physical violence. At the same time, he slavishly certain favoured artists who sought the total demolition of the established order, a consequence that inexorably results in increased crime and violence….not that this occurred to him at the time.
This nihilistic love of destruction kept uneasy company with a high and mighty dudgeon towards what he perceived as social injustice, and among its chief targets were dictators on the right wing of the political spectrum – in fact, the political right as a whole – and while he also opposed left-wing oppression, he reserved his real animus for the right.
The 1980s was a decade of protest and riot in the UK, and all through its years of raging discontent, David allied myself with one radical lobby after the other, including Greenpeace, CND, Animal Aid, Amnesty, and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which published one of his characteristically apoplectic letters of protest.
And he marched against the looming nuclear threat in London and Paris, and was a remorseless disseminator of rants, pamphlets, tracts, postcards, and whatever else was at hand as a means of spreading a message of social revolution.
He would ultimately contend that his was the self-righteous fury that is rooted in a false notion of the perfectibility of Man, that fails to recognise that oppression stems from the sin we all share, and that has no real satisfying motive other than its own existence. But at the time, he knew nothing of any of this.
In the summer, a faction from Westfield, culled mostly from the Drama department, took Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” to the internationally famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and in their production, Shakespeare’s Illyria was transformed into a Hippie paradise, with David playing Feste as a Dylanesque minstrel strumming dirge-like folk songs with a voice like sand and glue.
Most of the Westfield players’ male contingent couldn’t have deviated more from the politely liberal norm found nightly at the Fringe Club on Chambers Street if they’d tried. Among the wildest were Vinny, a dashing Britalian of passionately held humanitarian convictions who played Sir Toby Belch, David, the anarchic product of multiple social and educational influences, and Jez, a tough but tender Scouser with slicked back rockabilly hair, who played Malvolio in a mesmerisingly understated manner.
Jez was a fascinating, charismatic guy with a hilariously dark sense of humour who may have been in a band in the early ’80s at the legendary Liverpool Post-Punk club, Eric’s. He and his girlfriend Gill, who’d designed the flowing Hippie costumes, and was also a very dear friend of David’s, never stopped encouraging him nor believing in him:
“I think you should be one of the greats, Carl,” he once told him, “but you’ve given up and that’s sad. When I’m 27, I’d be happy to be like you. In your writing, make sure you’ve got something really unbeatable…then say…
‘here, you ********!'”
Yet, while he was complimented by many at Westfield, others betrayed their disquiet with their words, as if he had the power to remind them of the true tragic essence of sed non satiata:
“You give to everyone, but are incapable of giving in particular.”
“I’m afraid…you’re inscrutable. You’re not just blasé, are you?”
“I’m afraid there’s something really troubling you, that you don’t want to tell anyone.”
“There’s a mystery about you…you change.”
“I like it when you really feel something, but then it’s so rare.”
“Don’t go away so long like that, David, it worries me.”
“Blind, deaf, indifferent.”
David’s relationship with Westfield was one of the great passions of his life…and one destined to haunt him for the remainder of his days, as if he knew he’d never know such depth of intimacy again…and be increasingly prey to the torment of fading affect.
During his second year, he lived in an upper floor apartment in Powis Gardens, Golders Green, with his close friends from the French department, Seb, a former Sedbergh School alumnus, and fellow northerner Stephen , whose alma mater was Sedbergh’s age-old rival, Ampleforth, a Catholic college largely run by Benedictine monks.
Steve was an incredibly gifted pianist and guitarist who despite a misleadingly serious demeanour was a warm, affectionate, witty, eccentric character who endlessly buzzed with the nervous energy of near-genius. He might not have wanted to ape the way his flatmates dressed and behaved, but he was fiercely protective of them despite their social butterfly ways.
Soon after moving in, David decorated the walls of his room with various provocative images including reproductions of Symbolist and Decadent paintings, and icons of popular culture and the avant-garde. He was determined to live like an aesthete, even if it meant doing so on a shoestring in a cramped little flat in suburban north London, and to this end he organised a salon, which although well-attended didn’t survive beyond a single meeting. They were a pretty shoddy imitation of the new Brideshead generation that was thriving in Oxford in the wake of the TV series.
They drove their effusive landlady Mrs Roth half-crazy at times through heavy-footedness and other crimes of upper floor thoughtlessness, and they weren’t averse to drink-fuelled discussions extending well into the night.
In common with most of his friends, David tended to drink heavily at night, but almost never during the day.
The truth is that self-doubt wasn’t an issue for him in the early eighties and he was a truly happy person, in fact so much so that he may have exaggerated his capacity for depth and melancholia as a means of making himself more interesting to others. In the final analysis though, what possible reason was there for him to be discontented, given that his first two Westfield years were fabulous…an unceasing cycle of plays, shows, concerts, discos, parties set in one of the most beautiful and bucolic areas of London?
After the second year ended in the summer of 1983, David had a few months to spare before travelling to Paris to work as an English language assistant at the Lycee Jean-Paul Timbaud in the suburb of Bretigny-sur-Orge.
This spelled his exile from the old drama clique, and he’d not be joining them in their final year celebrations, and the knowledge of this must surely have affected him. He was, after all, severing himself from a vast network of gifted friends of whom he was deeply fond, and so losing an opportunity of growing as an artist in tandem with like-minded spirits. He could have opted for just a few weeks in France, but did he really want to be deprived of the chance of spending more than six months in the city he’d long worshipped as the only true home of an artist?
Earlier in the year, his close friend Madeleine, a brilliant dynamic woman of North African Jewish ancestry had told him something to the effect that while many were drawn to him, it wasn’t just in consequence of any magnetic attractiveness he might have possessed:
“They sense death in you,” she chillingly opined.
Cognizant as she was of the intellectual worldview of the great psychologist Sigmund Freud, who identified a death drive subsequently dubbed “thanatos”, she may have divined some kind of will to destruction within him…or rather, self-destruction.
As things turned out, she was right in doing so, although this was barely embryonic in the early ’80s, if it existed at all, but he would ultimately attribute its existence to a cocktail of intoxicants, namely, alcohol, the occult, and intellectualism, and to be of the belief that each exerted a terribly negative effect on his development as a human being.
It was not, he would contend, that intellectualism is evil in itself, but that intellectuals are more tempted than most by pride, rebellion and sensuality, and that the same could be said of those blessed with great wealth, great beauty, and great talent. He’d see intellectuals as among the most powerful men and women in history, and the Modern World as having been significantly shaped by the wildly inspired views of men such as Rousseau, Darwin, Nietzsche, and especially Marx and Freud.
To the man he’d become, their theories fanned the flames of a largely bloodless revolution in the 1960s, and rather than fade once the latter had been largely quenched, set about infiltrating the cultural mainstream where they became more extreme than ever, and so to enter the realm of the Post-Modern, while remaining the ultimate consequence of centuries of Modernist influence on the Judaeo-Christian fabric of Western civilisation.
However, David was never a true scholar like Monique, so much as someone who was both troubled and fascinated by the idea of hyper-intellectuality. Reading Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider” in the early ’80s, he especially identified with those intellectuals who were tortured by their own excesses of consciousness such as T.E. Lawrence, who wrote of his nature as being “thought-riddled”.
As a child he’d been extrovert to the point of hyperactivity, but by the time of his late adolescence, found himself subject to rival drives of equal intensity, one towards seclusion and introspection, the other, attention and approbation.
In his quest for the latter, he subjected his body, the creation he tendered so lovingly at times, to a ruthless almost derisive work ethic, and to stimulate this, he consumed a variety of intoxicants, not just because he enjoyed doing so, but because they enabled the constant socialising that brought him the affirmation he so craved…what could be termed a narcissistic supply. How else to explain the sheer demented fervour of his endless self-exaltation?
That’s not to say that he wasn’t a loving person, because he was; but precisely what kind of love was it that he spread so generously about himself? One thing it wasn’t was agape, the perfect, selfless love described in 1 Corinthians 13.
He was hardly less heartless towards his mind than his body, treating it as an object of research and experimentation. Little wonder then that he turned to drink as a means of pacifying it, although alcohol still wasn’t a serious problem for him in the early ’80s, when his exhausting daily regimen tended to be fuelled instead by massive quantities of caffeine tablets. That said, Madeleine didn’t like it when he drank to excess, as if she’d already singled him out as someone who’d go on to develop a drink problem. In this as in other things she showed remarkable insight. “Your friends are too good to you…it makes me sick to see them…you don’t really give…you indulge in conversation, but your mind is always elsewhere, ticking over. You could hurt me, you know…you are a Don Juan, so much. Like him, you have no desires…I think you have deep fears…it’s not that you’re empty…but that there is an omnipresent sadness about you, a fatality…”