Anthony Wilson passed away on August 10th, 2007.
For those lucky enough, including myself, to work for Tony, it was like embarking on a new journey of discovery. I was hired at Factory Records straight out of university in 1998, long after its heyday and I soon learned that working for Tony was an education in itself.
In his company, I found myself immersed in a new language. I listened intently to his conversations, watched his reactions, and marvelled at his ability to engage and entertain. In his black Jaguar, we would travel up and down the motorway, and he would regale me with tales from the fall of Babylon to the Spanish Inquisition, the War of the Roses to William the Silent, and the future of digital music that no one else at the time could imagine. For me, it was like working for Merlin.
One of the fondest memories I have of Tony was the night we missed a gig and ended up sitting in a service station near Northampton reading the first draft script for the film 24 Hour Party People – a story written about his life by the brilliant Frank Cottrell Boyce. Tony played Tony Wilson and I played everybody else. I’ve never laughed so much, and I realized just how amazing and incredible his life had been. I felt truly privileged to have spent time with him.
Tony was devoured by curiosity, waking up every morning with a sense of purpose and eagerness to see
what adventures the day would bring. As Truman Capote once said, ‘if you’re a special person, you need to lead a special life,’ and Tony embodied this belief like no one else. For Tony, anything was possible, and he exuded confidence in himself and his opinions, which made the people around him feel sure too.
Despite his larger-than-life personality, Tony was humble and approachable. He was willing to discuss his weaknesses and would mischievously take the blame for everything. He was wonderfully pretentious, using his intelligence and wit with an open heart that drew others in. As one online dedication since his passing put it, ‘around my poxy sink estate, pretentious was the new glue-huffing thanks to T Wilson.’ He was a true renaissance man, able to discuss Plato and Kafka as easily as Rugby League.
When Tony needed to turn it on and make his intelligence felt, he could do so with ease. Once, while watching a young, unsigned band perform at the back of a small venue, we were surrounded by London music industry types who weren’t paying attention. When one of them leaned over and said, ‘yeah Tony, they’re good, but I can’t hear the single,’ Tony paused, moved forward, and peered over his glasses. He replied in a calm but firm tone, ‘Yes, that’s because they haven’t written it yet.’ He then quoted Marcel Proust: ‘The reason for which a work of genius is not admired easily at first is that those who have erected it are extraordinary, that few resemble…’
Tony made you proud to be from Manchester.
He was a man of stature and fame, yet incredibly humble to those he was close to. I remember watching him carry box after box of brochures into the Palais in Cannes. As a junior, I kept saying, ‘don’t worry, I’ll do it,’ but he wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, he wanted to help, and as he set off with the final load, he whispered, ‘oh, you should know, darling, to quote Hegel, the mode of production determines the mode of consciousness.’ I should have known there was a deeper reason behind his actions.
His humility extended to his achievements, as he was never a big fish in the small pond of Manchester. His Manchester was Manchester, the World, and to know how respected he was, one had to walk into the hall of the New Music Seminar in New York and watch Tony try in vain to finish a conversation as he was constantly interrupted by the greats of the music industry, people like Roger Ames, Seymour Stein, the masters of the music universe, who were in awe of our Mr Wilson. In the global music industry, Tony will be remembered in line with the great music mavericks like McLaren, Ostin, Philips, and Ertegun, incredible people that changed the face of the industry by bringing their huge intelligence and spirit to the simple art form of popular music.
Every second I spent in his company was a true adventure. I owe him a great deal.
Having a mentor is a true blessing, and Tony was the best. As the saying goes, ‘a person dies twice: once when they take their final breath, and later, the last time their name is spoken.’ Tony’s name will continue to be spoken for years to come, and I’m honoured to have been a part of his life.
Tony Wilson was a mentor, a friend, a renaissance man, and a visionary.
Venceremos, W. And thank you,
Factory Records. 1998 to 2002.
This piece first appeared in the Creative Times magazine.