Monthly Archives: June 2019

Morrissey and I

There is a tendency to romanticise the past, but looking back on it, I got into Morrissey at precisely the wrong time. The Smiths split before I was 12 so passed me by, but in August 1992 I belatedly discovered their music. This was because I’d got tickets for Madstock! in Finsbury Park and wanted to know more about the support acts – Ian Dury, Flowered Up and Morrissey.

Ah Morrissey, what a terrible moment to fall for his charms.

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I bought July’s Your Arsenal and loved it. Reviews in the NME and Select noted one song title, “National Front Disco”, and alluded to other questionable views he’d expressed. But I shrugged that off. At Finsbury Park, Morrissey waved a Union Jack and was bottled off stage by Madness fans, leading to further questions about his political beliefs, but I was now diving headlong into the Smiths’ delicious back catalogue, helped by the release a week after Madstock of Best… I.  Like so many teenagers, I became obsessed, buying and absorbing every Smiths record I could find. Morrissey understood me. He felt my angst and expressed it wittily, with sardonic melodrama and waspish sensitivity. He was exactly like me, only funnier.

Plus, unlike every other pop star in the world, he wasn’t having any sex either.

There was much here that I could identify with.

There were other bands and singers I loved deeply, but none with whom I felt such kinship. He was like an external manifestation of my id, an embodiment of my core being, an expression of my soul.

But. But But. Journalists continued to query his attitude towards race. And while I wrote stern, painfully alliterative, pseudonymous letters to the NME in his defence, I knew. Deep down, I always knew.

“Reggae is vile”. “Life is hard enough when you belong here”.  “Obviously to get on Top Of The Pops these days, one has to be, by law, black.”

As soon as I read those quotes, I knew.

This was a man whose lyrical sharpness was his everything. He was never lazy or clumsy. The idea he was saying these things accidentally or without forethought was ludicrous. Yet I continued to ignore what was in front of my eyes. Right through (the frankly magnificent) Vauxhall & I and even after (the frankly abysmal) Maladjusted, at which point I stopped buying his records. A long, very detailed, critical feature  in Uncut gave me momentary pause, but I was still excited enough by his comeback at the Royal Albert Hall in 2002 to write an enthusiastic preview in Time Out – albeit not excited enough to actually attend.

I still listened to to the Smiths. I even bought Autobiography, bristling briefly, for old time’s sake, at the criticism it received.

But always, deep down, I knew. I knew.

Now, it’s all out the open. Although some would say it always was, and they’d be right.

Why did I refuse to see what had been obvious from the very start? The human capacity for self-deception as a survival instinct is extraordinary powerful. Add the obsessive love of fandom, that cultish need to identify, and you have something that is very hard to step away from. So much is invested in this person that the truth about them becomes impossible to process.

Love takes a lot, but it gives a lot back too. Through Morrissey, I discovered amazing music, films, books and plays. My adolescence was enlightened. My teenage pain was soothed. But was it worth it?

All I know is that I can’t listen to the Smiths now without feeling a huge loss, an emptiness, a sadness. That might seem like an excessive response but the initial love was excessive too. That’s how it works.

I am now too old to have heroes, but I wish as a teenager I had picked Bruce Springsteen.

Inside Brixton Prison

Although I’ve lived about a mile from Brixton Prison for over a decade, the closest I’ve ever got to it is the view from the top of the nearby Brixton Windmill. From there, the bleak wall of the building can be glimpsed. It’s a miserable contrast to the uplifting presence of the windmill, but for some prisoners the unexpected sight of the windmill from their cell brings real solace.

The prison is now the subject of a very readable history, The House On The Hill by Christopher Impey and published by Tangerine Press. Impey tells the story of the prison in breezy bite-sized chapters, switching from general history to extended anecdotes as required. In the process, he shows how Brixton evolved as attitudes to prison and punishment have developed.

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For fans of psychogeography or coincidence, some of this evolution travels along parallel lines. When it was first constructed, the prison had a giant treadmill, on which prisoners were forced to march all day. This produced flour to make into bread. The treadmill is gone, but the prison today has a bakery, founded by Gordon Ramsay. It also has an award-winning restaurant, the Clink, and is home to the studios for the National Prison Radio.

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Brixton has had a variety of uses and been rebuilt several times. Originally it was constructed as a local prison for Surrey, but it’s also been a women’s prison, a military prison and, most famously,  a remand prison for those awaiting trail in London. It was briefly planned to be used as a site for hangings – a gallows was constructed but never used after a local outcry. The building is now the prison gym.

It as a remand prison that its best known and this period saw it welcome many of its most famous inmates, among them Mick Jagger, Bertrand Russell and the Krays. Over the years, it’s housed a number of politicians, including in 1921 a group of 24 Labour councillors from Poplar who refused to pay precepts to the LCC, water board and others. The politicians were able to use their savvy to gain extra benefits, and even held 32 council meetings at the prison – six female councillors at Holloway were ferried over to take part. They were released after six weeks. During the Second World War, it was Oswald Mosley and other homegrown Nazis who were demanding additional privileges. One prison officer complained, “I have to line up at shops for my cigarettes. The Fascists get all they want. They smoke all day. The play table tennis. One of them even has a pet budgerigar.”

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One lesser known prisoner was Colonel Victor Barker, who was arrested in February 1929 and brought to Brixton after going bankrupt. During the requisite medical examination, the Colonel asked if he could wear his vest. Would the doctor take his word that there was nothing wrong with him? The doctor refused. At which point the Colonel confessed that he was a woman. The doctor agreed, noting that Barker was “well developed woman, obese” with breasts “fully developed and pendulous”. Barker was swiftly sent to Holloway.

Colonel Barker had been born Lillias Irma Valerie Barker. She had started to live as a man ten years previously. Astonishingly, she had married – her wife had no idea she was living with another woman and declared the honeymoon “perfectly normal”. After serving nine months for perjury, Barker was released to huge crowds of fascinated onlookers. He continued to live as a man and died penniless in 1960 in Lowestoft.

The House On The Hill: Brixton, London’s Oldest Prison by Christopher Impey (Tangerine Press).

 

 

 

Farewell to The Borderline

I have a short piece in the current issue of Uncut about the Borderline (and another longer, very good, piece about the Flamingo).

The Borderline is due to close this summer after a rich history as a venue, hosting a huge number of US and UK bands including Amy Winehouse, REM and Pearl Jam. It was the last venue Townes Van Zandt ever performed, but it was also often used by labels hoping to break an act – its location, good reputation, atmosphere and 200 capacity made it an ideal showcase venue. For these reasons, Oasis chose to use it as the location for their “Cigarettes & Alcohol” video, before playing an impromptu set for the fans who attended the shoot.

I’ve seen loads of great shows here, the best of which was the UK debut by the Drive-By Truckers, which included a solo spot by new recruit Jason Isbell. I also saw Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent play here as Fillup Shack in front of an audience of around a dozen. Most of us were there thanks to the music editor of Time Out, Ross Fortune, who heard ticket sales were low so handed out freebies  to anybody who wanted a night out. Ross loved the Borderline and made it his venue of the year. He even had a favourite seat by the bar that gave him a perfect view of the stage while also allowing him to get served without having to stand up.

Jeff Buckley was another who made his debut at the Borderline – he then played a second show across the road at the 12 Bar for fans who couldn’t get tickets. I was talking to somebody recently who saw Pop Will Eat Itself at the Borderline supported by Suicide – when the crowd booed Suicide off the stage, Clint Mansell refused to perform with PWEI. A bunch of US actors who fancied themselves at musicians all played the Borderline, among them Bruce Willis, Russell Crowe, Minnie Driver and Kiefer Sutherland. How many venues in the world can claim that?

When REM played here it was under the pseudonym Bingo Hand Job, a legendary two-night stand that saw them joined by Billy Bragg and Robyn Hitchcock as this massive band played a bunch of scuzzy covers to 200 fans under their assumed identity. For the piece, I talked to Mike Mills about the shows as well as fans who say it was the most fun they ever saw the band have on stage. That’s the power and pull of a good club venue, and one you’ll never see replicated at a larger theatre or arena.

The Borderline was also worked hard. During its peak years (1990-2005) it was open every night of the week, and after gigs hosted club nights like Alan McGee’s The Queen Is Dead – which caused some entertaining culture clashes at the doors as one group of fans left and the others arrived. The music booker was Barry Everitt, who had a fascinating career in music and whose obituary is worth a read. Incidentally, the manager during this golden period now runs the Crobar, the nearby dive bar and one of the few venues that seems to be clinging on in this part of London. He believes the current owners suffered from a “lack of experience, lack of understanding, lack of contacts”.

When I wrote about the changes to the Charing Cross Road on this blog eight years ago, I speculated about what Crossrail would allow to survive. The development of this area has cost London several venues either directly or indirectly, with the Astoria, 12 Bar and Metro all disappearing along with a number of smaller bars and clubs.

And now the Borderline is going too, leaving the 100 Club  as the last decent-sized West End venue standing. Enjoy it while you can.