In the late 1970s, a drummer called Topper Headon joined The Clash, the most exciting rock’n'roll band in the world. There followed five years of non-stop playing, partying and drug-taking…but by 1982, Headon’s heroin addiction was out of control, and Clash leader Joe Strummer was forced to sack him. Then things got really bad. Today, reflective and sober, he tells Mark Lucas his remarkable story.
Driver K44 sits in a deep armchair with his Staffordshire bull terrier, Yowsah, lying across his lap. Stroking the dog he recalls the mini-cabbing job he took in west London in the late 1980s to fund his heroin addiction. “I look like death,” he tells me. “I’m driving a Talbot Solara with a dodgy starter motor and I pick up this old lady. She goes to get in the car and I say, ‘Excuse me,’ and I hand her a broom. While I turn the key she has to bash the solenoid. The car starts and I go, ‘OK, get in. Here’s the A to Z – do you know where you’re going?’”
By 1989, when the mini-cabbing work became too much for him, he had taken to the London Underground, busking with a set of bongos. “Every hundred people who passed, there’d be one who’d stop and ask, ‘Are you Topper Headon from The Clash?’” He shrugs, “I’d have to say, ‘Yeah, this is what I do now.’ It was so humiliating.”
More than 20 years have passed since I last saw Nick “Topper” Headon; we were fellow drivers at a mini-cab company in Fulham, west London, where I went by the radio call-sign K42. At the time, I thought Headon had taken the state of heroin addiction to a new level; it didn’t seem possible that he could drive a car at all, let alone do it for a living. When I came across his name in the press recently, I was surprised to learn that he was still alive.
On a bright spring day, however, as I step out of Dover station, he pulls up in his customised Mini Cooper to collect me. Now 54, Headon is still small and slim. He is dressed in jeans, a striped shirt and trainers, he wears wire-rimmed glasses and his greying, spiky hair is receding. By the time we arrive back at his house, I have had a chance to adjust to how the man I knew all those years ago has been transformed in other ways, too. Where before he had the slack, cadaverous features and reduced conversational ability of the long-term heroin addict, I am now treated to his charming smile, lengthy anecdotes and frank admissions.
As if making up for his lost years, Headon is making an increasing number of appearances in the press: working with local music charities; drumming with various bands; being a spokesman for the Hepatitis C Trust, a virus that he has recently beaten. He is about to donate his beloved Mini Cooper to be raffled by the Strummerville Foundation, a charity for young musicians. To some it may seem ironic that Headon is so involved with the organisation set up in memory of The Clash’s frontman, the late Joe Strummer, the man who sacked him from one of the 20th century’s most revered rock’n'roll bands. Although already a heavy user, it was to be this event that propelled Headon into taking his heroin addiction to the next level …