Like much else in my adult life it started with a drink. My friend John was round, a bottle of red was open and we were talking about Britpop. More precisely we were talking about how other things were not as good as Britpop: films, meals out, friends, wives. For John and I life could be considerably improved by a cheeky handclap, a chorus of las and a cod-Mancunian accent. And it was in this Bacchanalian reverie of Reni hat nostalgia that he muttered the words that set me on a journey that would end six months later in an arrow-storm of coke bottles fill with piss.
“Hey, Luke do know Art Brut?” his expression half misty-eyed A&R man, half toddler od-ed on corn snacks.
I didn’t. What was Art Brut?
“They’re a bit like Blur,” he said, “but the singer just kind of speaks.” This was enough for me. We found their MySpace page and, much to my wife’s irritation, the audio cable for the surround sound system.
Rolling drums and pub-rock guitars followed, then the words: “Formed a baaaand / We formed a baaand / Look at us / we formed a baaand.” John was wrong the singer didn’t just speak. He blurted. And he blurted beautifully.
“Honeypie, I don’t know when it started / stop buying your albums from the supermarket / they only sell records that have charted / and Art Brut, well, we’ve only just started / and YES this is my singing voice / it’s not irony / it’s not rock n roll / we’re just talking …. To the kids.”
“He calls himself Eddie Argos” John said. I was in love.
Art Brut’s shtick of hyper-self-conscious social observation and cheeky-chappie punk rock excited me like nothing I’d ever heard before. In Argos, I felt I had a kindred spirit – a socially awkward indie boy who just wanted to get on Top of the Pops and jump around like a tit. I’d never heard someone pour so much of his heart and soul into not taking himself too seriously. He was a genius and what’s more he too had probably cried himself to sleep over Justine Frischmann.
For the rest of the evening John and I played Art Brut cds and studied Eddie’s lyrics with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of someone’s dad at the Lotus factory. My teenage love affair with pop music had ended because the people who were into music were so straight, so serious, so pretentious. So much so that I had to find solace in the world of performance poetry. I loved music, but I point blank refused to take it that seriously.
Art Brut’s songs were about the usual stuff – getting drunk, teenage fumblings and a love/hate relationship with rock n roll, but it was the tone that got me. Argos was simultaneously droll and child-like, like Mick Jagger with blackcurrent lolly down his t-shirt. Cool, but not afraid to be funny. In the space of 30 seconds he had restored my faith in indie kids everywhere. I was excited about music again. I wanted to go to a gig. Christ, I almost bought an NME.
But my Art Brut obsession was different to those of my teenage years. This time round I wasn’t just content to read the words of my heroes in a magazine and then jump around at their feet once a year. Despite my newfound fascination I was an adult now and painfully aware of my dignity. I was a professional artist, a full time poet no less. I was happy to be an Eddie Argos fan, but I thought it only good form that he be my fan too. I could open for Art Brut on tour; Eddie and I could sit back stage after the gig, sip rum and talk wryly about which cultural reference points were longer pulling their weight; and on Tuesdays we could play trivial pursuit with Luke Haines and Nigel Blackwell.
I think I was telling Nigel that Canada’s most prevalent goose was of course the Canada Goose when John interrupted my daydream to ask:
“Hey, what are you doing on 11 July?”
The answer to that question soon became: going to see Art Brut at boutique music festival Lounge on the Farm. I am a keen festival go-er but for the last ten years my arm has borne a different colour wristband to the mere punter. My shouty pop-culture based poetry has earned me stage time at many sun-drenched shindigs from The Wivenhoe May Fair to the Alternative Stage at Leeds, via Latitude and Glastonbury. As much as I was excited to be seeing Art Brut my ego, like an underhand Waylon Smithers, started putting ideas in my head. These eventually lead me to sit down a few days later and write an e-mail to the organisers of Lounge on the Farm.
Though I was careful to hide it, there was a patronising air to that e-mail. I was a well known poet and comedian, I was really taken by their line-up, I was coming down anyway, hey, hell, here’s a thought, for a ticket I’d even do a set. Y’know just a thought.
For weeks I heard nothing and then this:
It may well be that we have a slot for you, but at the moment I am still raising budget for the cabaret stage so I can’t give you a definite. Would you be able to hang on for a week or so while I finish off programming other areas?
Thank you very much for your interest,
Sweet. A week later there was this:
Do you do any sort of compering?
Would you like to compere the friday night in the cow shed (main stage) its starts at 7pm ?
This was quite a development given that the exchange had started with a contact request form online. I was suddenly aware that I’d have quite a bit of work to do. I replied saying that was great, but I was really keen to watch Art Brut, and would I clash with them? Vic’s final e-mail sealed the deal:
No you won’t clash – you’ll be introducing them !
Alright Eddie, pass the rum.
That e-mail was dated 11 June. For the month leading up to the gig I was, arguably, a bit full of myself. Me and John wanted to go to gig, so I was just all like “fuck it’ll get myself on the bill.” And I did. God! I love my job!
I even plucked up the courage to drop Eddie Argos a message over MySpace to this effect. A few days later he got back to me:
That sounds wicked. Come and say hi.
On Friday 11 July 2008 John and I got into the Baron (my Ford Escort) and drove the 150 odd miles from Norwich to Canterbury. I remember seeing once on MTV the doors of a gig venue being opened and thousands of indie kids running full pelt for the crash barriers in front of the stage. This scene was playing on loop in my head as we shot down the A11 on that muggy summer afternoon, the windows down and Eddie Argos blurting away. The career of a performance poet is hardly littered with award ceremonies or rock memoir moments; there are few snap-shots of my life that would convince my fifteen year old self to drop his telecaster and pick up a rhyming dictionary but if he could have seen me then I was sure he’d approve.
Lounge on the Farm as the name suggested was held on a farm, but unlike Glastonbury there were no rolling meadows to get lost in and forget this fact. This was a much smaller affair, here the drunken revelers and the John Deers were going to have to share. We drove the Baron down dirt tracks past barns, combine harvesters and refugee cows before parking up in a field and being met with an odour which my mum would describe as “a lovely country smell,” but which everyone else would describe as “pig shit.”
Upon pitching John’s old tent we found its outside covered in a substance that had the consistency of chewing gum and smelled of off-milk.
“That’s gross,” I said.
“Yeah,” John looked a bit crestfallen, then said: “Shall we have some wine?”
We drank a bottle and a half before heading into the arena. I’d like to point out that I do not normally share a bottle of wine before going to work. Festival gigs are not like other gigs, a certain amount of festivity is required from the performer. A few drinks and joints are par for the course. And besides, if you were about to face 5,000 music fans with only poems where a guitar should be, you’d want a drink too. And as we made our way past the merch stands and buckets of swill the wine seemed to have done the trick: I was compos mentis, articulate and yet completely fearless.
The Cow Shed had been named by the festival organizers with breath-taking literalness and upon arriving there we were unable to find anyone of authority. John went to the bar to get us a couple of beers and I had a poke around backstage.
The first person I found was a bloke in his mid thirties, a kind of home-counties John Candy clad head-to-toe in denim.
“Hi, I’m looking for the stage manager.”
“Can’t help you there mate, I’m just the compere.”
“Yeah,” he said, lifting the paper pint cup to his chins.
“But … I’m the compere.” I said feeling faintly ridiculous, like Ben Stiller in a Ben Stiller film.
“Nah. I compere this stage every year,” he replied, “ask Sean.”
Sean was to be discovered at the end of 20 minute tour of portacabins, each one guarded by a slightly more fierce hi-vis waistcoat wearing woman than the last. Our eventual meeting was as disappointing as the pixilated princess you see when you complete a Mario game.
“We’re starting a bit late. You’ll begin at eight.”
“Right, ok. There’s another bloke there who says he’s the compere.”
“What does he look like.”
“He’s kind of … um … big.”
“Oh, that’s just Pete. Ignore him You’re definitely compering.”
“Right, and what should I tell Pete?”
“Oh,” Sean laughed, “it’s fine just tell him to see me.”
It wasn’t fine. In fact I’d go as far as to say that Pete was somewhat put out by the news.
“But I’ve compered this every year.” His man-boobs jiggling.
“Sorry, it’s just, well I’ve come all the way from Norwich. And … Sean said. ”
“What, you’re not even local.?”
“Um … no.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a poet.”
“Right … well … good luck.” And with that he walked off to the bar.
The confusion didn’t end with Pete. The various technicians and artists liason people at the Cow Shed had no prior knowledge of their stage being compered. I came to wear the phrase “Sean said,” like a cashmere coat in a poor neighbourhood, as I had to negotiate myself a radio mic and a few minutes before each band to do some poems.
Eventually eight o clock rolled around and I began. It was my job to perform about 10 minutes of material and then bring the band on. For my first set there were probably about two hundred people there and I could be easily heard above the crowd’s low burr. I’ve done plenty of gigs with bands before, and whilst you cannot expect a cocked ear, if your stuff is accessible enough you can usually win them over.
I started with lowest common denominator stuff – rants about Victoria Beckham and Central Trains. I had a few laughs and a couple of decent rounds of applause. A few heckles too, but nothing particularly audible and very much in the minority. Then after the second poem a bunch of lads, barely sixteen, ramped up their taunts. One kid in particular, stripped to the waist, wearing Oakleys and spurred on his similarly attired friends hurled a volley of “twats” and “dicks” at me.
The general rule I have with hecklers is to ignore them if I can, but it was clear this strategy now had to be dropped.
“Blimey, you sound pleased with yourself,” I said turning to him,” and what’s your name mate.” His answer was a gift.
People generally don’t sympathise with gobby teenagers called Rupert. A loud jeering laugh went up across the crowd and Rupert piped down immediately. Round One to me and I didn’t even have to do anything.
However, a few minutes later his courage returned and he started hurling more abuse. I was midway through a poem when this happened and in a moment of what I still declare to be compering genius I paused mid sentence, dropped the mic, jumped off the stage, hurled myself over the crash barrier, grabbed Rupert by both cheeks and planted a massive kiss on his lips.
As a performer I am somewhat taken by applause. I am partial to its many varieties: from the polite pitter-patter of library going pensioners to the baudy here-heres of the working men’s club. I love it all, but the cheers and laughter that rang around the cow shed after that moment were pretty special indeed. I jumped back on stage and started the poem exactly where I’d left off. After that I got the first band on and walked off feeling pretty pleased with myself. It was a shame Eddie hadn’t been around to see any of it, but I knew he’d be there soon enough.
I was feeling a bit bad about Rupert. When the crowd were cheering my victory they were also cheering his defeat. There was no doubt he had deserved it but when you start heckling a slightly overweight poet you don’t necessarily expect all sixteen stone of him to fling itself over a wall and snog you. I decided to seek Rupert out and offer the hand of friendship. If nothing else it might make him shut up.
However, as I approached the coterie of wooden bead wearing public school boys they spotted me and began shielding their leader.
“Oi fuck off mate.” One of them shouted, “just … just fuck off.” They seemed genuinely terrified of me. It wasn’t as if I’d hit him, though I guess in these paranoid times what I’d done could, at a push, be considered sexual assault. Was it worse?
“Look, guys,” I started, feeling a bit like Tony Blair, “no hard feelings, eh? It’s just I’m trying to do a job and I don’t need that sort of agro.”
“Fuck off mate. Fuck off.” They had nwo formed a tight ring around Rupert with the kind of military precision that only public school can teach you. It would have been amazing to see what they could have achieved with a few Roman shields. Realising my words were lost on them I shrugged and walked off to find John.
I found him at the bar with two pints of lager.
“That was amazing,” he said handing me a ice cold cup. I grabbed it and downed half the pint in one. Fearless didn’t cut it any more, I felt like Mecca-Straisand.
The next set was harder than the first. The crowd had more than doubled. There were now about 1,000 people out there chatting, drinking and shuffling around. Under the corrugated iron roof of the cow shed the noise was nigh-on deafening. I spent less time belting out the poems and more time compering. That is, getting the crowd to shout obvious answers to obvious questions ever more louder than the time before. Are you having a good time? Are you looking forward to Art Brut?
It was hard work but I was loving it. Rupert and his mates were nowhere to be seen and after my second set I found myself down at the front of the crash barrier signing autographs and having my photo taken by a large crowd of teenage girls. John meanwhile kept the beer coming.
Art Brut were scheduled to come on after my fifth and final set. Their gear had arrived and the techs were beginning to assemble the drum kit stage right where I waited between sets. Seeing the Art Brut logo on the drum skin brought it all home to me. This was actually happening. It was strange, in the past I had done gigs with everyone from Eddie Izzard to Pete Townsend, but something about this felt so much more exciting. Perhaps it was the whole narrative, the story was so neat.
Just before my third set Art Brut’s guitarist Jasper Future turned up back stage. Blonde and boyish he was far more friendly than you expect a rockstar to be. High on the atmosphere of the gig my wine loosened tongue soon told him how I’d come to be there that night, right down to the grimaced expression on my wife’s face when John and I had cranked the surround sound. He listened intently then laughed and slapped me on the back.
“That’s awesome,” he said “so you’re going to be introducing us tonight?”
“Yeah, looks like it.”
“Cool. We’ll have to have a drink later.”
“Nice one.” I said as the sound guy signalled for me to start my third set. “Oh, got to get back on.” I shook Jasper’s hand and walked out in front of the crowd, feeling indestructible.
The noise level had shifted up a gear. It was now getting dark outside and the mood had changed to suit it. The fluid nature of a festival crowd means that the compere is often performing to an entirely different bunch of people each time he gets up on stage. All the hard work I’d done in the first set – my funniest, most accessible poems and the inspired piece of Rupert-baiting – hadn’t been seen by 90% of the crowd that met me for my third set.
Performing poems had by now become almost pointless. No one except my gaggle of teenage admirers in the front row were listening and I wasn’t entirely convinced they were fully appreciating the subtle nuances in tone, the echoes of Larkin or the references to Proust. In fact the nob gags seemed to be going over their heads.
To make matters worse Rupert et al were back and were now compounding their insults. No longer was I a mere “twat.” I was a “twat dick cunt.” Sadly my clever ripostes about the etymology of curse words were lost on them and so the set concluded with me flinging abuse back. At some point I was hit with what felt like a full pint of beer, but I laughed it off and it seemed like the crowd did too. The atmosphere was rowdy but it didn’t feel hostile.
As the next band began their set I headed to the bar to find John. As I made my way through the crowd a woman with pink hair and a spider’s web tattooed on her neck grabbed my arm.
“Oi,” she said, shouting in my ear, “didn’t no one tell you this is family festival?”
“This. Is A. Family. Festival.”
“What do you mean?” I replied looking around at the scores and scores of paunchy middle aged men in fishing hats and wasted a-level students.
“You. Effing and jeffing like that. It’s not welcome here. This is a family festival.”
I tried to explain that I hadn’t started the swearing and that really all I had wanted to do was perform my poems, but seemingly bored, or unable to sustain conversation of more than two exchanges, she dismissed me with flick of her hand and took swing from her hip flask.
“It’s getting pretty hairy up there, isn’t it?” said John as he met me by the bar with the customary pint.
“Yeah, but I’ve only got two more sets to get through before Art Brut.” John and I clinked the plastic cups and I stumbled back towards the back stage area.
I had been feeling a bit odd since my exchange with the pink haired lady. Hers was a different kind of hostility to that of Rupert and his mates. In her mind I was the aggressor. I could handle being heckled; I was the victim, the brave revolutionary against the world, the under dog. But that image didn’t tally with pink hair’s vision of me as the destroyer of family values and defecator of moral code. To her I was the children’s entertainer smoking round the back of the marquee; the pervy uncle at Christmas.
Upon arriving back stage I was met by Jamie the sound technician.
“You’ve got to calm it down up there, mate”
“It’s all cool.” I said as breezily a possible, “they’re loving it.”
“Art Brut’s people are getting very nervous about their gear,” he said. “We can’t have people throwing stuff onto the stage area.”
“It was just a cup,” I cut back trying the shrug it off. Inside I was mortified. Art Brut’s people? I was becoming an enemy of the noble state of Art Brut. Again, I was being cast as the aggressor, the problem. Could no one see that I was the victim in all this? I was doing a good job under difficult circumstances.
“Just don’t wind the crowd up,” Jamie said handing me the mic. I felt really drunk.
The noise was now impenetrable. There were about 5,000 people in the cow shed. Rupert and his pose had moved closer to the front and were now seemingly chatting up my gaggle of female admirers. Psychologically I had lost my main supporters in the crowd; my Calais; my Mayfair and Park Lane.
There might have been applause after my first poem but you hear it. Half way through the first verse of the second I was hit by another cup and completely forgot my words. The five thousand people who moments earlier hadn’t been listening were suddenly aware of a sweaty man on the stage in front of them repeating the same line over and over, peering down at the mic as if would somehow reveal the answer to him. A loud jeer began to spread through the audience, not unlike the one Rupert had received a few hours earlier, only this time there were ten times as many people to spur it on.
I held my arms up in a flamboyant shrug and tried to pick out a few friendly faces.
“Yeah smooth, smooth Luke,” I said, “I’m a dick, lap it up.” The self-mockery smarting all the more in the face of so many enemies. I looked behind me to Jamie and shouted off mic, “Ready yet?” He shook his head and sound technicians busied themselves around me.
I reverted to compering mode whilst I trawled my mind for another poem to get through me to the next band. “Is everyone ok?” The response was more of a jeer than a cheer.
“Come on guys, you can do better than that? Is everyone having a good ….” I finished the sentence but no one could hear it, the mic had cut out. Flustered I tried to say something else. Nothing. I look back to Jamie with a ‘what-the-fuck’ expression but he just shook his head at me and turned away. They had switched me off. I looked back to the crowd who had by now had realised what had happened.
I can still hear the noise they made. The low, howling laugh, like a million Nelson Muntz. Schadenfreude makes it sound too sophisticated. It was officially the weekend and every speeding ticket, redundancy and cup of tea gone cold was being levelled at my drunk head. Because I’d forgotten the words to a poem I’d written to entertain them with they could legitimately hate me, that was their right and they were not going to pass it up.
Determined not to loose face, I applied a good natured grin, jumped down from the stage, and walked towards backstage in front of the crowd. As I neared the end of the front row I felt like I had found an ally. A bloke of about forty in a large beige fishing hat was beckoning me over. I was of course looking out for sarcasm but he seemed so genuine.
When I reached him he put his arm around my shoulder and said: “you, mate, are a fucking twat.” I tried to pull away from him but he held me tight.
“Look, I’m just here to do a job. There’s no need to hate on me like that.” I shouted back, my voice cracking slightly. I felt along way from home.
“You can’t come here and say those things you were saying.”
“Like what?” I yelled, exasperated, “Tell me what I saying that so offensive.”
He shook his head, pursing his leathery lips. “You tell me,” he began, slow and deliberate like a sarcastic teacher dealing with a naughty schoolboy, “what you said, and I’ll tell you what was wrong with it.”
“No. You tell me what was offensive.”
“No, you tell me what you said and I’ll let you know what I think.”
“You don’t even know what I said, do you?”
“Don’t you tell me what’s what. You tell me…” I could see this was going to go for some time At that moment I loathed this man more than I have loathed any other human being in my entire life. If someone had come to me then and said “right we can kill George W Bush or this fellow here, you decide” I’d have gone for that leathery lipped bastard in a flash.
Desperate to make him stop and relinquish his grip on me I did first thing that evening of which I am not proud. I tried to spill his pint. It was the only thing I could think of. There was no point remonstrating with him. I wasn’t going to hit him. At least this way I would cost him three quid and ruin his shoes.
Problem was, I wasn’t fast enough. As my drunken, lolloping hand reached for his cup his grip instinctively tighten. What followed was a pathetic tug of war which resulted in some of the beer being splashed over me. But he’d already dealt the killer blow. As I grabbed his pint he given me a look as if to say: “What on earth are you doing?”
What on earth was I doing? Despite being a certified half-wit shot through with a confused kind of malice he hadn’t tried to spill my drink. Security guards eventually separated us, letting me off and reprimanding him. But there was do doubt in my mind that I had lost the exchange.
On returning backstage I was met by Jamie.
“Luke, I can’t let you back out there.”
“But I’m just going to get Art Brut on and that’s it.”
“No, sorry. Art Brut’s management won’t allow it.”
“But … But it’s the whole reason I’m here.” My voice cracking again.
The cow shed was spinning. My jaw was heavy. My nose smarted. My eyes … Oh Christ no. I wasn’t going to cry? Please no, don’t cry. What the fuck?
“What’s going on?” Jasper touched my arm. I forced a laugh.
“Fucking crowd … they … I’m basically not allowed to get you guys on.”
“What? But that’s the whole reason you’re here.”
“Yeah, I know, stupid. I don’t know why.” I did know why. I was a fucking state. I could barely talk. I’d made 5,000 people hate me. I’d tried to spill a man’s pint. “Look, fuck it. I don’t care.” I lied again. “I’m just going to enjoy the gig. Have a good one.” And with that I did a kind of whoop, shook Jasper’s hand and headed off towards the crowd.
Two security guards stood by the crash barriers. As I tried to get past they blocked my way.
“We can’t let you out there.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Mate,” one of them said putting his arm my shoulder, he looked like he pitied me, “you’ll cause a riot.”
“No I won’t, it didn’t go that badly.” Hadn’t it? Would I cause a riot?
“Will you please leave via the back of the stage.” This is a viable option. I could still get round the front and meet up with John. I could see him waiting for me on the other side of the barrier. He gave the security guards a look, then aimed a questioning shrug at me. I felt so ashamed. I’d been so full of myself. I’ll get us into Art Brut. This is how we should always go to gigs. I’d pitched it to him as this great adventure but really it had just been about me and my ego.
“Please,” I started. I swallowed carefully and deliberately as if it would somehow sober me up. “I would just like to leave by the front exit, meet my friend and enjoy the band.”
By now Jamie had come over as well.
“Luke do yourself a favour.” He said nodding towards the bloke in beige fishing hat, “That guy’s a twat I don’t want to see him start up on you again.”
I looked down in indecision as Jamie and the security guards leant in to speak to each other. They took their eyes off me momentarily. I made a run for it.
I got about six feet before I was grabbed by both guards and kicking and screaming forced to the ground. My face hit the dirt, my jeans ripped. I looked up to see Eddie Argos and the rest of Art Brut looking down at me. Eddie gave me the same look as the bloke in the beige fishing hat: what on earth are you doing? With that look my rock n roll dream ended: I would never drink rum and play Monopoly with the greats of British pop lyricism.
I eventually snuck out and met John.
“No one could hear you,” he said. “ You just sort of became this hate figure.”
“Fuck it,” my bravado was beginning to return. I was so drunk that I was unable to focus on what had happened for too long. I just painfully aware that I owed John a good night. “Let’s mosh.”
We made our way into the crowd as Art Brut took to the stage. Eddie flung himself around behind the mic stand.
“Formed a baaaand / We formed a baaand / Look at us / we formed a baaand.”
The words took me back to my living room and the bottle of wine. Why hadn’t I just bought tickets for the festival? I’d put my dignity on sale for £25. Tears welled up in my eyes.
“I need to get out of here,” I said to John.
“I’ll come with you,” he said. I wanted to say, “no, don’t bother, I’ll be ok.” But I couldn’t manage it. I wasn’t ok.
We headed back to the tent, John half carrying me as I cried like a child who’d lost his mum. I cried for Rupert, for the pink haired lady, for Jamie, Sean and the plethora of women in hi-vis jackets. I cried for fat Pete, the bloke in the beige hat, my female admirers, the security guards, for every chucked cup, every twat, cunt and dick for Jasper, John and Eddie. But most of all I cried for myself. For my stupid, egotistical self.
The next morning I woke next to John in his sweltering tent to the smell of vinegar and feet with the sense of dread that is familiar to most weekend drunks. We packed up and drove to a little chef on the A2. John’s silence peppered by my apologies.
“At least I …” I’d start before remember some other detail, “sorry.”
John was remarkably chirpy about the whole thing. I had spoiled his evening, but he knew I’d be living with the demons for much longer. I eventually dropped him off at a train station near the M25 and headed to Reading for another gig. Unsure as to whether I’d ever be able to perform again.
For months afterwards I couldn’t listen to Art Brut. Every time I heard Eddie’s voice I saw that look on his face: “what on earth are you doing?” But about nine months later they brought out a new album and I couldn’t resist giving it a listen.
I download the songs from iTunes and waited till my wife was out at work. Plugging my laptop into the surround sound system and cranked the volume. The first track kicked off with crashing drums and a typically spiky guitar riff, then Eddie began:
“Slept on my face, and woke up confused / A bit concerned about what I’ve been up to / There’s so many people I might have upset / I apologise to them all with the same group text.”
The song was called Alcoholics Unanimous. I poured myself a glass of wine, sat back on the sofa and let go.