Huey Morgan: King of New York

A walking, talking advertisement for the city, Huey Morgan of Fun Lovin' Criminals takes Tim Cooper downtown
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The Independent Culture

The cute waitress in the Mexican café on Lafayette and Kenmare is clearly hot for the smooth-talker with the Latino looks, the Irish charm and the R2D2 ring tone and wants to know why he's got a writer and a cameraman trailing him around town. "I'm a writer," he smiles from beneath hooded lids.

"Oh yeah?" she says, "and what do you write about?"

Morgan takes a bite of his carne enchilada, smiles at the even prettier girl in the yellow dress who's just waved hello from another table, and shrugs. "New York."

It's as good an answer as any. As Noo-Yawk as a yellow cab or a Reuben sandwich, Morgan is a walking, talking, guitar-playing advertisement for his home town and a one-man embodiment of a certain kind of cool. A New York City kind of cool. "And the gang", as Samuel L Jackson underlined in Pulp Fiction, the movie that inspired the song about the Valium-assisted stick-up job that brought the hit that made the name of the Fun Lovin' Criminals. Ten years later Huey's still running around the same downtown streets, no longer robbing banks whacked out on Scooby Snacks, but still singing the praises of the greatest city on earth. And as part of next month's UK tour, he'll be performing at an outdoor screening of Pulp Fiction in Manchester. "I think the sponsors who invited us think 'Scooby Snacks' was actually in Pulp Fiction" - it's not - "so we said we'd play that and 'Link Wray's Rumble', which is in the film and used to be our soundcheck song when we did the U2 Popmart tour."

The new album, Livin' in the City, is a hometown homage that instantly transports listeners to the city that never sleeps, a place where car horns beep and sirens wail 24/7 against a backdrop of funk, soul, hip-hop, blues, fuzz guitar and occasional mariachi trumpets. Huey was raised a short walk from from here on 3rd and C, Alphabet City, and his band's music is the sound of New York itself, where salsa pours out of Puerto Rican bodegas and merges with the hip-hop blaring from the homeboys' car stereos and the rock guitar of the white boy's practice amp in the apartment upstairs. It's the sound of the city, "from downtown Brooklyn to the LES" (Lower East Side) as one of his new songs puts it; and no one brings it to life quite like Huey and Fast and the new drummer, Frank - that's Frank The Rhythm Man to give him his full title. Frank, incidentally, looks like a pimp from Spanish Harlem but actually comes from the mean streets of, er, Leicester.

England has always been particularly fond of the Crims, and Huey has returned the favour by fuelling the tabloids with plenty of lurid escapades, usually involving liaisons with glamorous women. "Yeah, well our joke is that if I banged all the girls they said I'd banged, I'd be a cool guy," he replies. Some of the stories were true and some never got out, such as the time he took Cat Deeley to the Hell's Angels' headquarters in London's East End and "they all turned into 12-year-old boys and took pictures with her", and the time he got a call from Reg Kray inviting him to visit him in prison and the real-life gangster told him: "You know everything I don't know about the world and I know everything you don't know."

"They all wear the same blue-striped shirts in there but his one had the spread collar and the French cuffs and he had a bracelet with 'Legend' on it," Huey recalls, pausing to pose in front of a poster of Tony Soprano opposite what was once Umberto's Clam House. If anyone ought to have done The Sopranos' theme music it was surely the Crims, but Huey says he has no hard feelings that the job went instead to Alabama 3. "Those guys are friends of ours, so no way do I mind," he insists. Indeed, he even turned down an acting role in The Sopranos for fear of being stereotyped. "I love the show but it would be exactly what someone would expect me to do," he says.

After a youth dedicated to petty crime and the occasional spell behind bars, followed by a judicially prescribed stint in the Marine Corps that took him to Iraq for active service in the Desert Storm campaign of 1991, Huey still seems surprised and pleased that he's managed to pull off his current career. "Where I come from it was pretty much inconceivable for me to do this for a living," he says. "People like me don't do the whole international rocker thing, we work in the post office or we run numbers or something." Despite that, he has built up quite a business empire, including a refuse disposal business in Brooklyn, a copper mine in New Zealand, pubs and pizza joints in Dublin and plans for a strip club in Hawaii. He claims never to have hankered for mainstream success, saying it would make his job harder. "Like I told that cute waitress, I enjoy writing about New York and the human condition, and you can't do that when everyone says: 'You're the guy from that band' every time you go out. You have to be an everyday person. We are almost reporters rather than musicians. We tell people how it is rather than how we would like it to be."

We head over to Brooklyn, where Huey used to live with Fast, whom he met right after leaving the Marines while working in his first civilian job as a bus boy at the Limelight Club, and started the band with original drummer Steve-O. Fast is in London so we borrow his apartment for a look at his collection of samurai swords and machine guns which, thanks to his military training, Huey can strip and reassemble in seconds; even after sampling some of his surfing friend Matteo's herbal souvenirs from Hawaii. Then Huey heads home for a "disco nap," promising to hook up for dinner later on.

A few hours later he calls to cancel dinner because he's got to "take care-a-sump'n" but says we'll definitely hook up around midnight. Shortly after 1am he finally responds to some increasingly anxious messages, sounding dazed and confused, and arranges to meet us on a street corner in the Meat Packing District. Phil the photographer and I find him on the corner of 27th Street and 10th Avenue shortly after 2am where he's full of apologies and momentarily offended at the suggestion that he might have been asleep. Then a grin crosses his face. "I was totally asleep," he admits, before making up for it by taking us to Bungalow 8, the hottest club in New York, favourite haunt of the A-list.

As soon as we arrive, the doorman engulfs Huey in an embrace and ushers us straight through a crowd of wannabes into the club. Moments later we're ensconced in the best table in the place, with the best view of the utterly fabulous people who've made it past the door police to drink watermelon martinis and dance beside murals of the palm-tree-fringed Beverly Hills Hotel. Soon we're deep in conversation with Amy Sacco, the queen of New York nightlife. Surprisingly, she turns out to be really normal and dressed exactly like the kind of person I imagined would not be let into Bungalow 8, in a nondescript T-shirt and frumpy-looking denim skirt. Then I look around and realise that this is how the door police recognise impostors: they're the ones who've made the big effort while real celebs just wear T-shirts and jeans (which is just as well for me and Phil the photographer) because they don't have to make any effort at all.

So while the doormen Google a would-be clubber to check that he's really who he says he is and Phil pretends to Amy that he's a "celebrity photographer" rather than a sleazy paparazzo who would normally be expelled from her club before he can frighten any of her A-list chums with his long lens, Huey and I hide in the cloakroom to finish the interview we were supposed to do over dinner before he fell asleep and forgot to get up and talk about his new album.

Livin' in the City captures a mood of post 9/11 confusion; anger and defiance mixed with fear and uncertainty. Its centrepiece is "Gave Up On God", a heartfelt meditation on what it is to live in today's New York. Over a plaintive piano melody, Huey outlines the historical and political background to today's terrible conflict before asking: "Did you ever think the world would get so hard? Children killing children in our own back yard? Did you ever think you'd say that you gave up on God?" It's powerful stuff from someone who's happy to play up to his cartoon persona as a dope-smoking gun-toting playa - a convenient caricature formed by "Scooby Snacks" and enhanced by "King Of New York", an ironic homage to Mafia don John Gotti.

"I was getting a little tired of writing about this stuff I thought people wanted to hear," he explains. "I wanted to write about what the people in this city live for. What England sees is George Bush because that's our figurehead but Bush is a lot far off what New York City is. What worries me is that he's doing everything in the name of God - and so is Bin Laden." The closing song, "Will I Be Ready", describes an America "roasting on the fire of aggressive imperial desire" and considers the consequences of recent events. "The lyrics are about when that Islamic war is taken to your doorstep," says Huey. Ask him what he thinks of the USA's response to the events of 9/11 and he's unequivocal. "The government is closing the barn door after all the horses have run out."

Morgan was in New York that day and in London when the suicide bombers struck on 7 July this year, and notes the different reactions of each city's people to attack. "It was like seeing your grandma get hit by a car," he says. "In New York everyone was ashamed and taken aback - in London people were like: grandma was old, she had a good life. It was more realistic. But if people are getting so pissed off that they will fly planes into buildings, something must be wrong with foreign policy. And somebody will come in and do exactly what they did in London here in New York in the next six months," he predicts. "It's inevitable."

Meanwhile, Huey Morgan will keep on chronicling his home town and making occasional forays into acting. He has twice played drug dealers and is about to be a New York cop - hence the pencil moustache that's replaced his usual goatee. But his true thespian dream remains unfulfilled. "What I would really like is to be in EastEnders. I wanna just sit in the corner of the Queen Vic chilling. I've got the character all worked out. I'm a mini-cab driver and I just got back from taking someone to Leicester." He adds: "I love that show so maybe if you could mention it, someone'll read it and give me the chance. Tell 'em I'll do it for nothing."

'Livin' in the City' is out now on Sanctuary; Fun Lovin' Criminals' UK tour begins on 11 September

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