Before I had any ambitions in music, I wrote poems. In my early adolescence I even kept a poetic diary (much the same as a normal teenage diary but even more moany and self-conscious). I had no particular desire to share this work, I think I wrote this stuff more out of a confused intention that it might be discovered in the event of my death and everyone would finally realise just how deep and misunderstood I was. In fact I was neither, which makes me particularly pleased that I didn’t die young.
When I began focusing more on songwriting and live performance then poetry very much took a back seat. But I’ve never completely left it behind and I still write the odd scrap here and there. My songs have always owed more to the written and spoken word than rock and roll. Some people’s entry point into popular music is through basslines and rhythms, for others it’s the fashion, for me it was always the words. I think good lyrics can redeem a bland melody but I don’t think the opposite is true. Needless to say, many disagree with me.
And though I adore music and have allowed countless songs to shape my character over the years, I’ve never been a particularly good music fan in the traditional sense, at least not in any of the cathartic life-changing ways that the likes of Danny Baker would relate to in an interview about vinyl nostalgia. The most moving live experience I can remember was seeing the Romanian poet Nina Cassian perform when I was a student. She was in her late seventies, I was nineteen or twenty. I fell hopelessly in love right there and queued up afterwards for her to autograph my book. Her line “…when your shoulders ache for want of wings” completely floored me.
The other day I found myself smitten with a pique of madness that resulted in me entering my name into the open mic segment of a spoken word event called Evidently that’s run by two friends of mine. It’s widely regarded as one of the finest regular poetry nights in the country (and it just happens to take place in one of my favourite pubs in Greater Manchester – The Eagle Inn). I was utterly terrified of getting up onstage without my guitar, of standing still and delivering a succession of naked words, utterly prone to criticism and indifference. I also had other worries on my mind: I have a tendency to gabble, trying to fit ten words into the space of one (oftentimes I leave no space between words at all); sometimes I find myself at the mercy of a stammer and worried I wouldn’t be able to say anything at all. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, or where to look. I was mortified at the thought of all the real poets cringing over my attempts to pass myself off as one of them. Everybody hates a tourist.
But what was I really frightened of?
Not simply the thought of laying myself bare – there’s always an element of that in any kind of performance. I was worried about a weight placed on words that are more accustomed to being consumed as part of something more elaborate. I would definitely class myself as a lyricist rather than a poet. It’s all about how things fit. I often fancifully compare songs to films: the words are the dialogue and the music is the weather and scenery, the waves lashing against the galley or the meteorites breaking against the hull of a space craft. The final scene from Casablanca would have been very different if it had taken place on top of a volcano or against the backdrop of roosting pterodactyls… “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship” says Humphrey Bogart as the camera pans out to reveal Rick Blaine and Louis Renault riding off into the mist on the back of a stegosaurus.
It’s all about balance and context. Indeed, telling a songwriter you like their lyrics more than the music can be very dangerous, like saying “this roast dinner would be nothing without the gravy” only to find that next Christmas you get served a bowl of gravy and nothing else.
If you’re going to send words out into the world with no armour or back-up, those words need to be strong enough to take care of themselves.
But I’m a great believer in wriggling out of comfort zones. I’ve been singing words into microphones for years but I’ve not been speaking them. It’s not healthy for any performer to forget how it feels to be nervous. One needs to remain a little bit vulnerable, to leave a chink in the chain-mail, however small. If art is about anything, it’s about being human. And no human is invincible.
I had a great time that night. I was bowled over by the other performers, they were all utterly superb. More than that I was moved by the atmosphere in general. It was so supportive. Too often music gigs featuring multiple acts have a surreal gladiatorial atmosphere of competition and impending bloodshed. Here there was a palpable reverence for emotional expression but without any sense of worthiness. No shushing or tutting, no smug chuckles at clever references identified. Just a sharing of words and thoughts and experiences. There was a charge to the room that I haven’t felt for a while. Maybe it was just because I’m less accustomed to these events than band gigs, maybe I was simply seduced by the unfamiliar. The things I love about good music performance were all here – honesty, enthusiasm, commitment, enjoyment. But there was none of the posturing or hierachy or hero worship that so often ruins gigs; no sense of there being two sides separated by a wall. It was the idea of equality and inclusivity that first drew me to live music. And here I find it at live poetry.
Still, I’m not contemplating any drastic career changes just yet. It was strange leaving the stage and not being covered in sweat, beer and blood. I’d definitely miss that.
Evidently takes place on the second Monday of every month at The Eagle Inn, Salford.