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Inside The Heart Of Bruno Wizard

Tuesday, 11 March 2014 Written by Tom Seymour

At a homeless shelter in east London, in the early hours of “a particularly cold and dank” Boxing Day in 2011, Elisabeth Rasmussen – a 26-year-old volunteer from Tromsø, Norway - heard tell of an enigmatic man named Bruno Wizard.

He was, they said, a punk, a regular fixture of London’s original counter-culture movement, and had come in from the streets over two years ago. “He was this tall, enigmatic guy with this with way of words, this aura about him,” Rasmussen says. “On the morning I met him, he managed to get these homeless people who hadn’t said a word all Christmas into a songwriting workshop, and they started to come out of themselves, to open up.”

They got talking, and Bruno, now 63, started to recount the crazy days of his youth, of being poor and getting high with people far more famous, of living an easier life than he is now. “I thought he must be bonkers and living in a fantasy,” Rasmussen says. “But when I got home and looked him up, I realised he has lived the most incredible life.”

That he had. As a give-a-fuck 20-something with a taste for chemicals and anything else that wasn’t part of the notional establishment, he shared a scene with some of the most resonant names in British music history: Joe Strummer and the Clash, Billy Idol and Generation X, Paul Weller and the Jam. He squatted with the Warren Street Mafia, which also included, at one time or another, Boy George, the filmmaker John Maybury and the singer Marilyn.

Rasmussen, meanwhile, first moved to London as a student, writing an MA on homelessness in the capital before heading home to Norway. After that chance meeting with Bruno on Boxing Day, she packed in her TV job in Oslo, returned to London, bought a camera on eBay and followed him around his old haunts. The result – The Heart of Bruno Wizard – premiered at the East End Film Festival, and has taken them both to festivals around the world.

I meet them at the back of The Ship pub on Wardour Street, Soho, eating crisps and drinking orange juice. Bruno is wearing jeans cut at the knees, an army surplus coat, tie-dye t-shirt and patterned scarf, his grey hair thin on top and long at the sides. Rasmussen is smartly dressed, small and gentle, with high cheekbones and big eyes. They’re on the soft drinks – Bruno’s been clean since 1986.

Throughout the 45 minutes we spend together, I manage to get about five questions in. Elisabeth politely sits, silent. As we both listen attentively, Bruno talks about his inner spiritual being, about “my revolution being hijacked by the establishment”, about his life being a story he’s written in his own mind.

While he talks, his eyes remain sleepy, misty, but in total contact with your own. He avoids questions about drugs while tacitly acknowledging, with a metaphor about mental hygiene, his reliance on them. On more than one occasion, he wakes from his monologue to ask, “What was the question again?”

Yet Bruno is no bore. He was born in Sunderland in 1950, educated at a Catholic school, and moved to London as a teenager. With the civil rights movement in America, student protests in Paris and with Johnny Rotten starting to stir in London, there was, Bruno says, “a feeling of the world’s youth rising up in protest.” And he wanted to be part of it.

With his band, the Rejects, later the Homosexuals - “to keep the record companies away from us” - Bruno played at The Roxy club in Covent Garden. The venue had previously been a gay club, Chaguaramas, and it became a beacon for punk acts throughout the UK at a time when most halls wouldn't touch them. He became a dedicated member of The Roxy crowd, a grimy incubator of Andy Warhol-esque subversion, a home for those who didn’t succumb to too many temptations, and those who did.

Bruno never made it. He never got a record deal, headlined a big gig or made any money. Bruno’s Homosexuals were together between 1978 and the early '80s, but didn’t release much more than a few EPs and 7” records. Champions were few, in music or writing, now or then. It’s almost polite to term him an underground, cult figure. Harder men might call him a hanger-on. Does he care? He couldn’t possibly care less. “If Bruno Wizard had gone more mainstream,” one contemporary has said. “Then he wouldn’t be Bruno Wizard.”

In one great sequence in the film, Bruno talks of his first review. It was from Tony Parsons, for the NME. “A punk writer,” Bruno says. “Who could articulate everything and destroy people at the stroke of a pen.”

Parsons wrote: "'What's the use of dreaming when you're living in a shit filled sewer?' is the question that the lead singer of the Rejects poses in a voice that sounds like a braying donkey that has just been run over by a truck load of Librium. Behind him his band twang artlessly on their cheapo imitation Les Pauls in desperate attempts to slice the atmosphere with power chords while only succeeding in demonstrating how hopelessly out of tune, out of talent and out of depth they are up there in front of a packed house who stare blankly at this God-forsaken crew of schmucks..."

Bruno ended up in a shelter with, in his own words, “junkies and crack whores”. And that, difficult as it might be to imagine now, is the point of this film. It might be easier to make and distribute music now than ever before – and the democratic power of that is something Bruno brings up again and again in our interview – but it also means the money has gone. The result: young musicians more intent on deals and labels than ever before.

Success wasn’t interested in Bruno, and Bruno didn’t mind about success. He grew up in Sunderland in the ‘50s, and the ‘60s in London meant something beyond the album covers to him. Say what you want about Bruno Wizard, and they’ve said a lot, he believed in punk, and he never sold out.

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