IF YOU still reckon poetry’s all about stuffy old school textbooks or finger-in-the-ear performance nights upstairs at your local boozer, think on.
For away from the quieter corners in Waterstone’s and uni lecture rooms, there’s evidence that this ancient art can still chime with us all – with three fine examples of performance poetry at its best at 53 Degrees in Preston on Saturday night, and one even on the GCSE syllabus these days.
The proceedings got off to a gripping start through Mike Garry, a proud Manc who formerly put the ‘rar’ into librarian, supplying a perfect introductory act – his inter-poem banter setting the tone nicely.
His way with words was almost hypnotic at times, this long-haired linesmith – think Steve Coogan meets David Threlfall as Frank Gallagher – easing us in via a window on the hard-line world of paranoia and worry about the way we’re heading.
From his sad tale of a girl begging outside the World-Famous Embassy Club in Penny for a Guy onwards, there was plenty to think about.
“When the guy down the pub slags the Nigerians for nicking our jobs,
When the guy down the pub for 19 years has continually signed on”
And while Garry’s subject matter might struggle to break the ice at parties, there’s a spirit of real life here and inspiration behind the pain. Furthermore, behind his pensive poems and aural talent you instinctively know there’s a good, honest bloke.
One such example was Saint Anthony, his tribute to Tony Wilson and the late TV legend’s encompassing influence on seemingly everything that encapsulated Garry’s North-West during the previous decades, provided in an A-to-Z name-check of key moments.
“Hamlet, Ibsen, the IRA, Jesus, Mary and Keith Joseph,
Joy Division, Judaism, the importance of the moment”
His further warts’n’all portraits of hidden Manchester in the epic Fallowfield proved similarly beguiling, its trials and tribulations resonating in a less-wholesome picture-postcard portrayal of everyday working-class life in the pubs and clubs of his old manor.
Sandwiched between Garry and the main act was Luke Wright, who passed himself off as ‘the token Southerner on the bill’, Braintree’s ‘one-man boy band’ shedding light on life in his native Essex and giving credence to his description in The Observer as ‘the best young performance poet around’.
While his arrival might have led to a few shuffles and scrapes (this was my first seated experience at 53 Degrees) as a predominantly North-West clientele weighed up its guest, he put them at ease and disarmed the cynics with the Essex Lion, a poetic re-telling of the moment a few inebriated caravan-bound holidayers tried to convince the world of the existence of a big cat on the prowl near Clacton-on-Sea, leading to a large-scale police search and national headlines for what was in effect … erm, a big cat.
“Sausages on grills abandoned, couples pegging it in tandem.
But I just stopped and gazed in wonder at the great beast standing yonder.”
Anyone who rhymes “Officer, don’t be a benny, the thing I saw was MGM-y” is alright by me, and there was plenty more to come from this spikey-topped three-piece suit, including his tale of Barry vs the Blob, an alternative view of Brentwood life for those more prone to think of The Only Way Is Essex.
That was followed by Posh Plumber, a portrait of a less-than-perfect middle-class artisan with a ‘pastry face like Quentin Letts’, delivered in an Estuary English accent bringing Matt Lucas to mind:
“He might be slow, he might be late, or pitch up on a different date,
He may hum Haydn’s No.8, but he’ll never call you ‘mate’.”
Then we had a Hilaire Belloc-style telling of public school life, its underlying message suggesting – despite the huge admission fees – Charterhouse is still just another boys’ school where pupils draw willies on desks.
And before we knew it, Wright was away, having first shed light on his ultimate female fantasy in Bloody hell, it’s Barbara, partly inspired by reality TV’s Supernanny Jo Frost.
When we finally got to top-of-the-bill John Cooper Clarke, there was a feeling of last-minute mayhem from the moment he asked the backstage team to cut the big music intro, his leather bag of poems and lord-alone-knows-what-else plus a glass of gin and tonic never far from his side.
At times he was more stand-up comic then poet, with gags about everything from the humble Lada and old age (he’s 64) to voiced opinions on Alzheimer’s, Amnesty International, Hugh Grant, Lord Leveson and Raoul Moat, forever deviating from his path in a mostly heart-warning but occasionally borderline bid to bridge the gap between his poetry.
In a BBC 6 interview with the original Punk Poet the day before, Stuart Maconie revealed he’d performed 200 solo JCC gigs around the world in his ‘never-ending tour’ in the past three years, a heart-warming statistic after the forgotten years proving there is life after drugs.
But as the man himself said on the night, “I’ve seen the future and I ain’t there – things can only get worse!” – Clarke delivery his take on the Dignitas debate, including a major rant about Terry Pratchett, the right to die, and how it would be his worst nightmare to meet his end in Switzerland (or ‘an Alpine-natural neighbourhood, then back to Britain in all dressed in wood’, as he put it).
Things Can Only Get Worse also led to glimpses of his family life too, at least in stand-up style, telling us how heart-breaking it is for teenage children to tell you, ‘I’ve no sympathy for you’ and ‘you’re a fool to yourself’.
A long dialogue on past brushes with the law followed, leading to Thirty Six Hours and Bi-Polar Inmate Diary, adding how – despite his short punishment – he had more cause to write about prison life than Johnny Cash. And police dealings also came up in new offering Pleb Squad.
Then we had segues into advertising and mentions of a voiceover deal with a famous pizza firm, which he felt timely as it followed the outbreak of swine flu – ‘any food you can slide under a door has got to be the future’.
On he went, via a rant about the re-branding of VD as STI, the appearance of ‘Ragamuffin Romeo’ Dean Friedman at one gig and how it led to the renaming of his Lydia Lydia ‘for litigious reasons’ – proving how necessity was the mother of invention (‘and not Frank Zappa like a lot of people think’).
Despite hints as to why he never really enjoyed mainstream success, Clarke reminded us of his great talent on the mighty Beasley Street and an updated version, following the location’s Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen style make-over in Beasley Boulevard.
From the Arctic Monkeys and Kate Nash to Plan B, newer acts continue to doff their cap to JCC’s influence, and there’s no disguising our love (so to speak) for this icon – still going strong (if not a little wobbly) after all those years and everything he’s come through.
And his ‘high-yield pension fund’ show-stopper Evidently Chicken Town (recently borrowed by The Sopranos) summed up his talent, even if he did lose the momentum while rummaging through his bag for an encore – a fair chunk of the crowd wondering if they were about to miss the last train.
He finally got there though, a monologue on past marital woes followed by a happy conclusion with I’ve Fallen in Love With My Wife. And with that, and the 53 Degrees ‘curfew’ broken, the Bard of Salford shambled off stage.
I’d have preferred JCC in his pomp with the Invisible Girls, rattling off Martin Hannett-produced Disguise in Love stand-outs like I Don’t Want to Be Nice and Valley of the Lost Women. But I can’t complain, having been in the presence of a living legend touched by genius. And God bless you for that, Johnny Clarke.
Mike Garry here
Luke Wright here
John Cooper Clarke here
And for 53 Degrees in Preston, try here