At last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, musician/comedian Andy Zapp performed in a show with comedian Ivor Dembina.
Currently, he performs on Saturdays at Ivor’s Hampstead Comedy Club in London.
He is billed as The Orchestra of Andy Zapp.
“A lot of jazz musicians liked heroin,” I said to him over tea in Soho.
“Yes,” agreed Andy. “Miles Davis, John Coltrane, all those ones.”
“One comedian told me,” I said, “that he might take Red Bull, but he never took cocaine before going on stage because he wouldn’t be able to control his act. I’m not sure I believed him, though.”
“Well,” said Andy, “Lenny Bruce managed to do it quite successfully for a time. I think you can do it if you have that creative spurt. I might be quite good doing that for five or six months, then I’d just be fucked. You’ve got that sort of creative burst because you’ve got the energy and you’re not worried about how you feel when they don’t laugh. Subjectively, you’re cut off. You’re not really connecting with the audience and it doesn’t bother you.”
“I suppose though,” I suggested, “it could make the paranoia even worse.”
“Well, yeah,” said Andy, “you’ve gotta get paranoid first, though. When you take cocaine, you don’t automatically get paranoid; that’s further down the line. The initial part of it’s really nice, but then you start getting paranoid. Heroin would be better. Nice and relaxed.”
“You don’t want to be too relaxed performing comedy, though,” I suggested.
“You wouldn’t have the anxiety, though,” Andy argued. “I don’t know how it would work for comedians. They’re more piss-heads. Drink.”
“I wonder why?” I mused.
“Well,” said Andy, “it’s a different type of buzz. More outward. Music’s a little bit more inward: you don’t really have to ‘perform’.”
“I suppose drink makes people go off more at tangents,” I said.
“Garrolous,” agreed Andy. “Drink dis-inhibits. Heroin stops you feeling. You don’t feel physical pain, you don’t feel emotional pain. Me, I couldn’t use anything, really. I’m never tempted that much.”
“Why are you tempted at all?” I asked.
“I think: Oh yeah, I’ll just take a bit of speed and I can just really fly about or some cocaine and it’ll really turn off the internal sensor. But doing comedy clean the way I’ve been doing it – I’ve been doing it two-and-a-half years now – being with Ivor helps. He’s really useful.”
“Why? Because he’s analytical?” I asked. “I saw Ivor put his Palestine show together over a few months and it was like seeing a watchmaker paying attention to every little detail.”
“He’s maybe a bit too careful,” replied Andy, “but I’m all over the place, so he’s very good at getting me back on track. I’m still trying to sort this composure stuff out before I go on stage. If I forget my composure, I forget what I’m doing and get scared when I get up on stage.”
“Where did you and Ivor meet?” I asked.
“At the Red Rose Club about 27 or 30 years ago,” said Andy. “I used to like going to comedy shows. I was a junkie then.”
“How many years?” I asked.
“I’ve been in recovery for 27. I’m 15 years clean now.”
“How does that add up?” I asked.
“I was clean for 7; got a tumour on my spinal cord; the doctors prescribed me pain-killing medication and I sort of lost the plot on that; then I relapsed for 4 years; and I’ve been clean for 15. That’s 26-and-a-bit years. It’s been a great journey. I love being clean; I really do.”
“You recommend it as a career path?”
“I would. What’s your bag?”
“Chocolate,” I explained. “I have a stomach to support.”
“Other people do gambling or sex,” said Andy. “I just do drugs. It’s all addiction.”
“But if you’re clean of drugs now,” I asked, “what’s your addiction?”
“It’s kind of low-grade now,” said Andy. “I kind of understand how I roll. I can do chocolate now. I’ve got a high metabolic rate. I exercise quite a lot.”
“Marihuana is fairly harmless,” I said.
“That’s not true,” said Andy. “It isn’t harmless. It mimics mental health problems. Schizophrenia, paranoia, low self-esteem.”
“Sounds like the basic requirements for becoming a stand-up comedian,” I said.
“Well, it’s a good starting point,” said Andy, “but you can’t tell which way it’s going to go. It’s the way you smoke it, really. Physical damage; throat cancer; stuff like that. Heroin is the most benign of all the drugs.”
“Pure heroin,” I said.
“Yeah pure heroin,” agreed Andy. “I used to get jacks – 10mg tablets – like little saccharine pills. You got them off doctors. As a drug, heroin progresses through the body really easily. Within seven hours, it’s flushed through your system. It doesn’t damage any of the major organs. The only thing is it’s very addictive and, if you take a wrong amount, you can overdose. The stuff people get now… it depends what it’s cut with.
“It used to be only the middle and upper classes that took it and they were injecting heroin. But, once it became a smokable commodity, then it filtered into the working classes and the criminal classes and then it really took off.”
“It was the fall of the Shah of Iran that made heroin big here, wasn’t it?” I asked. “People couldn’t take their cash out of Iran, so they converted it into heroin and took that out.”
“Yeah,” said Andy. “But it was the marketing, really. People were putting it in joints, smoking it and thinking it was quite benign and, two weeks later, they’d got a heroin habit, a running nose, coughing.”
“What IS the Orchestra of Andy Zapp?” I asked.
“It’s me and a loop machine. Makes it sound like an orchestra of harmonicas.”
“That’s nice,” I said.