I recently found this old flyer from 1997, for a gig that I did at Christopher Hewitt’s brilliant but short-lived Hollywood Leather, a performance art space in the basement of a former leather-goods workshop on Sclater Street off Brick Lane in London. (I also found a VHS of the gig, which I will convert and put up here anon.) This was shortly before publication of my first novel Road Rage!, and the first half of the gig revolved around that. At that time I had been finishing the manuscript of what would become my novel CHARLIEUNCLENORFOLKTANGO, so the prospect of doing something at Hollywood Leather prompted me to think about testing that out on a live audience, and how it might be performed. The repetitive and stylised nature of the text, and the way that parts of it were written as exhaustive set-pieces — Burroughsian ‘routines’, playing power and its contradictions for laughs — made me think that it might also suit a musical accompaniment.
The three policemen in CHARLIEUNCLENORFOLKTANGO had first made a brief-but-promising (to me) appearance in an unpublished sequel to Road Rage! that had left me wanting to explore them further, so when Stewart Home asked me for a short story for his then planned Suspect Device anthology I knew what I was going to do. This was in the mid-1990s, during the period leading up to publication of the Macpherson Report, and the novel — or its opening chapter at least — emerged in response to the idea of an alienated police force that appeared (and still appears) to be locked into a cycle of violence (institutional or otherwise) and near-demented-seeming self-justification. The story never made it into Stewart’s anthology, but by that time it had grown into a novel, and one that was being written frenetically, in long-hand, where-ever I happened to be.
Thinking about the Hollywood Leather gig, I approached the musician and composer Jamie Telford to see if he might be interested in doing something with me. As well as being a classically trained composer, Jamie has incredible pop ‘chops’. He used to play Hammond Organ for The Jam. Lucky for me he put all of that experience at my disposal, and was happy to give it a go. For that first gig and the many that followed, he would accompany the reading in the way — it seemed to me — that a pianist might have accompanied a silent movie: improvising to follow the action.
Recently the musician Peter Lanceley, with whom I was working on a piece for radio as part of 2014’s Remote Performances project, asked how collaborating with musicians had become part of what I do. To him it seemed unusual for a writer to work that way. Well, that gig with Jamie at Hollywood Leather was certainly the start of it for me, but actually the roots of the practice almost certainly go back further than that: to formative years listening to Patti Smith, going to Laurie Anderson performances and listening to Michael Moorcock and Hawkwind’s ‘Sonic Attack’. Or listening to the great records that writer and artist Joolz Denby did with Jah Wobble back in the early 1980s, which came out of the spoken word and ranting poetry scene of the time. CHARLIEUNCLENORFOLKTANGO pretty obviously connects with the ranting scene too, which may be why the late, great Steven Wells loved it so much.
Here is one of those Joolz records (and I still have the 12″ single of this — it is the B-side of ‘The Kiss’ — and FYI those singles are now available on a new compilation: Joolz 1983-1985).
Either way, that collaborative ethos, both seeking out collaborations from time to time and a readiness to say ‘yes’ to offers that come my way (e.g. last year’s amazing Puppet Show project with the brilliant LA artist Steven Hull) is something that works for me, and has led to some amazing projects.
I am doing an event — readings and conversation with the artist Liliane Lijn — at the October Gallery, London, on Saturday 17 January. It is one of several events programmed to accompany their current (and excellent) William S. Burroughs exhibition, and I shall be reading from CHARLIEUNCLENORFOLKTANGO.
I will also be reading my short story ‘A Porky Prime Cut’, and this time with live musical accompaniment from UK Acid House pioneer Richard Norris. ‘A Porky Prime Cut’ is a story about Acid House and art school, about a strange war of attrition between some Throbbing Gristle fans and soul boys in the Bournemouth of the early ’80s. We have done this live once before, for the Free University of Glastonbury, so it will be great fun to do it again. The studio version of ‘A Porky Prime Cut’ is on my SoundCloud. Of all the pieces that I have done with musicians over the years, this one seems to have the most in common with those great Joolz records, perhaps because the story is set at that time — or on a vector between now and then.
CHARLIEUNCLENORFOLKTANGO was published in a beautiful paperback edition a couple of years after that Hollywood Leather gig by the former Brighton-based publisher Codex, whose roster at the time included Billy Childish, Stewart Home, Kathy Acker, Steve Aylett, Jeff Noon, Martin Millar and many more; great company for my bunch of lunatic policemen in a van. Very sadly, Codex folded soon after CHARLIEUNCLE… was published, so the book has been out of print for a while. Unfortunately, bad behaviour by the police never seems to go out of fashion, so I still occasionally get asked to read from the novel at gigs.
This video is of one such reading from 2012, at London’s Horse Hospital as part of an event to commemorate the 30th anniversary of 1982’s legendary Final Academy. This was shot on a phone by the poets Paul Hawkins and Sarer Scotthorne who happened to be sitting in the front row. The reading was pretty rough and ready, too — no musical accompaniment this time — but it was my second gig of the day: I’d just got off the train back from giving a lunchtime reading/Q&A at the Durham Literature Festival.
Liliane Lijn and Tony White: Readings and Conversation at October Gallery, 17 January 2015
Saturday 17 January 2015, 3pm.
Admission £7 Concessions £5, BOOKING ESSENTIAL