Gruff Rhys salutes Howard Marks: 'The weed he smoked would turn most humans to speechless rock'

Super Furry Animals liked the drug dealer-turned-bestseller so much they put his mugshots on the cover of their debut LP. After his death, the band’s singer pays tribute to the life – and counterculture swagger – of Mr Nice

The first time Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals met Howard Marks, the former drug dealer made a memorable entrance. Back in Wales after seven years in a US penitentiary, he turned up backstage at a concert in Pontypridd wearing leather trousers and a cape, accompanied by an entourage. “It was pretty dramatic,” Rhys remembers. “Rhys Ifans was with us and asked Howard if he could play him in a film of his life. At that point it was a completely far-fetched idea but it became a reality.”

Rhys had first heard about Marks – who died on Sunday – a few years earlier and become fascinated with this Welsh-speaking international outlaw. “There was quite a lot of folklore surrounding Howard,” says Rhys. “He represented a new context for Welsh culture. It broke with all the stereotypes. An antihero using the Welsh language not as a romantic language of mythology but as code with his Taffia gang to fool various government agencies.”

Gruff Rhys on Howard Marks: ‘He was a very charismatic man. He was like an elder to us.’
Gruff Rhys on Howard Marks: ‘He was a very charismatic man. He was like an elder to us.’ Photograph: Julian Makey/Rex/Shutterstock

He thus became an iconic figure for a band who were also eager to challenge stereotypes of Welsh culture. Before they actually met, the Super Furry Animals recorded Hangin’ With Howard Marks, a stream-of-consciousness song about encountering Marks in a dream. They also decorated the cover of their 1996 debut album Fuzzy Logic with a rogue’s gallery of his old mugshots. The release of the album coincided with the publication of Marks’ bestselling autobiography Mr Nice, which gave him a new life as a counterculture celebrity and campaigner for the decriminalisation of cannabis. After their first meeting Marks invited the band to stay with him in Majorca, marking the start of a 20-year friendship and occasional working relationship: Marks remixed The Man Don’t Give a Fuck while the band recorded the song Smokin’ for his Channel 4 documentary.

“He was a very charismatic man,” says Rhys. “He was like an elder to us. He was always generous with his time and his advice, giving us tapes of records to listen to. He had time for everybody, whoever they were.”

Rhys last saw Marks in February 2015, shortly after he was diagnosed with inoperable bowel cancer, when members of the Super Furry Animals played a fundraising show, but they stayed in touch until the end via text. “He was still pretty sharp of mind, as he had always been,” says Rhys. “He was a great storyteller. His mantra was ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’”

Rhys recalls a road trip from London to Cardiff during which Marks listened to the audiobook of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas while smoking incredibly strong Mexican weed, before going on live television to argue eloquently for cannabis legalisation.

“It would turn most humans to speechless rock but he argued his case like nothing had happened,” Rhys says admiringly. “I think he genuinely lived how he was portrayed. He wasn’t putting on a show. He was very real.”

Contributor

Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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