When I was sixteen I did a course in mime and physical performance that culminated in a piece of promenade theatre about the disastrous exploits of a family of clowns on holiday. I was the clown dog, leaping at unsuspecting spectators, humping legs, sniffing crotches and generally being a nuisance. I would, of course, go on to use the extensive research I’d done into dog mimicry years later in the Tell-Tale Hound song (little did I know that these bizarre qualifications would end up serving me better than two university degrees – but that’s the funny thing about life, you never know if the bit you’re currently in is the feed line or the punch line).
As well as learning how to struggle with invisible boxes and invisible suitcases and invisible doors and invisible ropes the clowning course taught me one very important lesson: a red nose affords its wearer near infinite license. Bound up in that one simple prop is the power of the Other, of the Carnival – a strange freedom that hinges on shedding one’s cares in favour of a temporary state of chaos and absurdity (Mikhail Bakhtin is the fellow to go to if you want to read more about this stuff).
I remember the particular moment this lesson truly sank in. After a long hard day of relentless miming (that mostly consisted of pouring imaginary tea out of a massive – and very heavy – imaginary teapot) our moderately immoral instructor and I were in a bar and he said to me:
“Quick, put your red nose on, let’s go chat up those girls over there…”
I’ve never been much of an up-chatter (with or without a red nose) so was understandably dubious (plus I’d struggled enough with the imaginary teapot) but I did as I was told, put on my red nose and walked up to the two women in as dignified a manner as is possible to do on all fours.
Up to that point I’d naturally supposed that, in matters of the heart, a red rose was preferable to a red nose. Well, it turned out I had supposed erroneously.
Years later, when I’d shifted my ambitions from acting to music, I realised that the red nose did not necessarily have to be a literal one. So I grew a moustache as a kind of surrogate. It suited the earnest little thwarted narrator of my skewed love songs, the humourless doom-stricken slapstick romantic, a semi-tragic antihero with his tragedian’s mask upturned in perpetually ignored self-mockery. Later, when I grew a foot-long beard, I regarded that as an extension of the red nose into full-blown Jester’s motley: same function – just slightly more ostentatious and, if possible, even more woefully silly.
When The Bedlam Six announced a hiatus recently I decided that as well as parting from my bandmates (however temporarily) I would also part with my moustache. I’d been a clown so long it was time to see if I could be anything else.
Some red noses detach easily. Some don’t.
So I shared my secret intention with Karen McBride (a brilliant photographer whose work has almost certainly crossed your field of vision whether you realise it or not) and asked if she’d be interested in capturing the moustache’s final moments. (I realise this all sounds a bit overdramatic but the truth is we’d been chatting about doing a shoot together for ages and this seemed as good an excuse as any)
I didn’t read too much into it at the time but, in retrospect, it was an odd little project. Normally the photoshoots I do are promotional shots designed to be scattered around festival brochures or venue websites – there is a destination in mind. In this case I wasn’t sure where the pictures would end up, who would see them and why, or even what we were trying to say (if anything). My only thought had been to get a few final pics of the familiar face that had ushered me from my twenties into my thirties before it metamorphosed into something unknown, something I didn’t yet trust (long time readers of this blog may remember my almost-existential-crisis following the Bedlam Six’s “Deep Enough” music video – so I was kind of pre-empting something similar). Beyond that one simple brief I had no thematic suggestions, no poses or accessories; I just turned up in my cleanest shirt and told Karen to do with me as she wished.
“There aren’t enough photos of topless men” she said matter of factly, “we’ll start with you clothed and then try peeling away some layers and then see what happens…”
So that’s what we did. And it was quite an experience. Karen is not only a very gifted photographer (a natural framer and keen-witted observer of the infinitesimal shifting of a person’s private seasons) but also a sort of archaeologist of the human condition – she kept brushing away layers of topsoil and debris to reveal all sorts of treasures and horrors. I felt both literally and figuratively laid bare. Karen had set out with the intention of photographing “the real me” but, in the end, I don’t think this is what happened, it was something stranger than that – this was a liminal moment, as if there was no “real me” to photograph – I imagined myself to be on the threshold between two characters – that familiar clown and whatever had been germinating beneath the moustache follicles during all those years of stage bombast and dumbshow.
I look at these photos now and don’t see me. But that’s not surprising, I also look in the mirror now and don’t see me. And yet there I am.
I won’t stay this way for long, maybe a few months, just long enough to soak up a bit of difference, to feel some fresh air and sunlight on the places that aren’t used to it. I’ve never really got on with my face as a whole. Bits of it are quite fun when viewed in isolation but I’ve always felt the entirety to be a bit untrustworthy. Something around the mouth perhaps, something slightly venomous and mocking, something cruel.
It’s nothing serious though. Nothing to be worried about. Nothing a red nose won’t fix.