on the brilliantness of patch hyde (and toby french)

Today I would like to specifically write about Patch Hyde.

Not simply because I did a gig with him last night and he mentioned that every time he pops up in this blog he seems to play a very small role (ie “something happened and then I had a chat with with Patch and then something else happened”); but also because I was thinking what an exceptionally good compere he is.

I was even talking to one of the co-promoters of the club about it (the club, incidentally, is a new one called ‘Llaugh‘, it’s in Clapham Junction and by January I reckon it will be one of the super-top comedy clubs in London).

We were talking about Patch’s compering, and I was saying how for me as the night’s opening act – I am asked to open about three quarters of the gigs I do at the moment, it’s getting ridiculous – Patch got everything just right: he made everyone feel comfortable; talked to individual audience members in a way that was pitched just on the right side of cheekiness to be funny; did a few little material-y lines so that the room could get the hang of listening to material; and then brought me on at exactly the right time so that I had just the right amount of goodwill from the audience and all I had to do was come up and do my stuff and enjoy it.

And then as the night went on, Patch’s bits in between the acts were great – at one point he got a muscular-looking foreign gent in the front row to come and lift him up to show he could lift him up, but the guy didn’t speak English so the whole thing took on that wonderfully surreal quality that you sometimes get with really good improvised stand-up that you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next but it doesn’t occur to you for an instant that it might not be funny.

And then at the end of the night, some people came in late and Patch basically described the whole show to them in a way that felt like an event had happened and everyone could go away feeling like they’d seen a show which was simultaneously anarchic and yet somehow very well-put-together.

It’s a really difficult skill to compere like that. I’m getting to be a pretty competent MC now, but I’ve only done it as well as that maybe once or twice ever; but Patch seems to be able to do it effortlessly. It’s a complete change from so many acts who, when they compere, still have everything meticulously planned in a way that guarantees laughs but never quite hits those heights of potential chaos.

Having said that, meticulous planning and scripting has its merits too. Not least because it leads to comedians saying things like Toby French (who has some really very well-scripted stories) did before the show.

He was looking very seriously at the list of routines scrawled on his wrist as an aide-memoire. And then, with a very straight face, looked up at me and asked, “Do you know if we’re doing ten minutes or fifteen? Because if it’s fifteen I’ll do all this and the granny-fucking bit; but if it’s only ten then I’ll have to drop the foetus.”

Brilliant.

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how babybird saved my life (yet again)

This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of Albert Camus, and I’ve been marking it by contemplating suicide.

Not really, you know, contemplating doing it. Just thinking about it as a thing (I don’t think I’d ever do it – that would be retarded! If only because it’s such a cliche. Also because it’s contagious and I tend to hang around with people who, for the good of humankind, I wouldn’t want catching it.)

But when you read the opening sentences of Camus’ The Myth of Sysiphus…

“There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards.”

…it’s pretty tough to argue with. Of course, you could point out that in order to make that judgment, we ought to know more about the kind of judgment it is, and so a proper understanding of the relationship between experience and our judging faculties are necessary before we can make it. But that doesn’t take anything away from the overriding importance of the problem. At bottom, ‘to be or not to be’ is still the question, and it’s one that, however annoying we might find existentialism, we can’t get out of answering.

So I’ve been thinking about what topping myself would be like, and how it would get me out of the overwhelming exhaustion that comes from waking up every day and thinking, (in Mike O’Donovan’s words), “Oh God, I’m alive again…“, and having to go through the ridiculous charade of pretending to like people you don’t like and not to love the people you do love, and not getting to spend your time doing whatever you like because you have to spend it waiting for buses and queueing and wishing you had an umbrella when it starts raining, and knowing that you’re going to have to do the same thing again but with worse and worse health, interminably until you die anyway

But I assume everyone gets this. (Right?)

I mentioned that I was thinking this to one of the other acts (I won’t say who) at the Comedy Cafe on Wednesday night. He said, “God, that’s an awful thing to be thinking. But, if you DO do it…can I have your jokes?”

Which I suppose is both a compliment, and a perfect example of the stand-up mindset.

Anyway, so this is what I’ve been thinking – the question of the value of being – and as is the way with these things, once you start thinking about something it starts popping up everywhere. In the news; in casual banter with the man cutting your hair; in other people’s blogs; a sociologist friend mentions he’s about to start teaching Durkheim’s On Suicide; a book I’m reading about Hemingway randomly falls open at a page near the end… Suddenly the idea pops up all over the place. And, I’ll be honest, it was starting to trouble me just a little bit.

Then the new Babybird album came out.

I once wrote about Babybird in my now-defunct Myspace blog, and a few people were surprised at how it was I could have so much love for the guy who wrote ‘You’re Gorgeous’.

But the new album, Ex-Maniac, is just remarkable. The third and fourth songs in particular. It might be hard to understand for a casual listener, but you don’t really know what relief feels like unless you’re in this cold, numb kind of place, weighing up the value of being, while at the same time wondering if this album you’ve bought is going to be any good, and then you hear Stephen Jones’ most calming, reassuring voice open a song with the words, “Step one, don’t kill yourself / Step two, don’t do yourself in…”

It’s called ‘Failed Suicide Club’, and it’s beautiful and it’s funny and it is enough to make you put the knife/rope/gun/toaster down.

But then the next song – ‘Unloveable’ – comes on, and it’s is the best they’ve done in a long, long time. It’s got a little bit of ‘Creep’ and a little bit of ‘With Or Without You’ (except with Johnny Depp being The Edge – Babybird are his favourite group and they let him play on it) and probably a little hint of ‘Run’ by Snow Patrol and ‘sha-la-la’s that remind me of the theme from ‘Local Hero’ by Mark Knopfler.

But it is entirely a Babybird song. Partly because nobody can sing ‘sha-la-la’ as meaningfully as Stephen Jones – he bellows it out like it really counts for something, because he knows that in pop music, it does. But also because nobody else could write a closing section that goes

“Love so sweet, it suffocates us like a sickly candy gag
And we’re floating down the sewerpipe like kittens in a bag
And the mirror screams to both of us that we are not alone
And the metaphors explode, and suddenly we’re home…

You can’t love me – I’m unloveable – but baby, you could try…

And I want to be able to explain why hearing Stephen Jones’ voice singing this makes me want to cry with happiness and despair and hope all at the same time, but I can’t. I can say that I suspect it’s the same mix of feelings that compels us to imagine Sisyphus happy. But that isn’t the point: the point is that it makes me feel something – and that is enough to pull me out of whatever swamp of thought that Camus might have put me in.

And so I listened to the rest of the album, and every single song (‘Bastard’ and ‘On The Backseat Of Your Car’ in particular) is witty and heartfelt and it’s what pop music is supposed to be like when it’s made by people who mean it.

So I got on facebook and I found out that I had friends who were also secret Babybird fans that I wasn’t aware of, and I got tickets to go and see them at the Scala in a few weeks.

And so it doesn’t matter whether my thinking about suicide was a practical or an academic matter. I know Camus had a go at Kafka for the ‘glimmer of hope’ in his writing, but he was wrong. Because hope IS the answer to Camus’ absurdity problem. The reason people don’t – or shouldn’t – do themselves in, is that you never know when there’s going to be something that turns up to look forward to.

For me, I’m just looking forward to putting Ex-Maniac on. Again. And that is enough for now.

ubermanoeuvre: proof that ayn rand was retarded

Last night I went to see the debut album launch of Loz’s band Ubermanoeuvre.

They are a remarkable group in lots of ways. They are hard to classify in terms of normal musical genres (imagine a very political rap-metal group but with lots of mad synth noises/occasional bursts of bluesy piano, and a complete disregard for traditional song structures). They also have a knack for gimmicks – no uber show is really complete without the waving of glowsticks and drinking of chodka, a dangerous cocktail of cherryade and vodka designed to get you drunk and e-number-hyperactive at the same time. Which is almost exactly the right condition to be listening to the music in.

But the thing that strikes me most about them is the complete lack of egoism in the group. Loz drew my attention to this himself in Edinburgh last summer, when he was comparing his experience of being in Ubermanoeuvre to the experience of putting together a comedy show. But he’s right – Ubermanoeuvre are a perfect example of a band who all work for each other, and each get something greater for themselves out of it as a result. Music quite frequently needs this kind of enlightened egoism (as opposed to the raw, destructive egoism that seeks to take power or credit for oneself at the expense of others); it’s a collaborative demonstration of what can be achieved when everyone crushes, or at least keeps a check on, their own ego for the sake of a bigger piece of art.

But for most people this is a huge struggle. It always was for me when I was in bands as a teenager; I always had to be in control or I’d get very frustrated. The last real band I was in, I quit because – and remember, I was very young so don’t judge me for this – I wasn’t the main singer so I wanted to write all the songs instead. There’s still a part of me that still thinks I wasn’t wrong, that my songs were brilliant and if they’d let me tell them all exactly what to do then we’d have been rock gods and not ended up trawling the Northampton pub circuit doing Oasis covers. But I hadn’t been a founder member of the band, even if I had been I’d have had no right to tell them what to do, and I had to quit. Stand-up suits me better – I might be better at writing songs than jokes but at least I have complete control over the jokes.

Anyway. Ubermanoeuvre have something I don’t have, which is the seemingly effortless ability to work together without a struggle for attention or power, and it means that they have become an incredibly tight group who all contribute to the sound of the thing. I thought the same thing the other day listening to Radiohead – a group I have no doubt have their own conflicts of egos – but in the songs, they are all so focussed on the overall product that no one instrument dominates the songs. Even Thom Yorke’s voice is…well, let’s say that if Sinatra tried to make his voice sound like a trumpet, Yorke’s voice frequently sounds more like a string section, floating above the music and adding an extra dimension to the feel of it rather than dictating its direction.

Which is not to say that egoism doesn’t work in music – of course it does, and I’m sure you can come up with your own examples – but it must be, to an extent, disciplined in order to work collaboratively with others. Even Bob Dylan prefers playing with a band. This isn’t an argument for communism, of course, or to claim that it is good that individuals be subsumed by the whole – but it is an argument that much of the great things we produce as humans require the right balance of ambition and collaboration.

My point is, Ubermanoeuvre – whatever egoistic personality issues they may have between them, and I know nothing about that – give the impression on stage that they love what they are doing so much that they find it incredibly easy to find that balance by simply letting the music smash the principium individuationis. And that is very impressive.

——

As a postscript to this, I should add that something else unusual happened at the gig, which is that someone opened a conversation with “Hello. You don’t know me but I like your blog.” Which was a little unnerving, but she was very lovely and seemed like exactly the kind of person that I hoped would be reading it. Hooray!

Again, that hasn’t really helped me with my own egoism, though…

how it is

I came to see it for the second time today: How It Is by Miroslaw Balka at the Tate Modern. If you haven’t seen it, you haven’t lived. Or at least, you’ve lived but you haven’t had the chance to really understand it.

It’s – and I’m going to try explain what it is in a way that hopefully won’t put you off seeing it, and with as little hyperbole as possible – the single most interesting work of art, literature and demonstrative political philosophy I have seen in a long time.

Except ‘seen’ isn’t quite the right word. I mean, you see it from the outside (it’s a terrifyingly huge steel box that basically fills one end of the Turbine Hall); but when you go into it, it is complete blackness. You can’t see anything. You stumble around, not quite knowing what you’re doing, trying to work out if you’re about to walk into something or someone. Eventually you reach the back wall and you turn around, and you can see the light and the windows at the other end where you came in, and the silhouettes of people who are a little further back than you, themselves stumbling cautiously around trying to find their way.

Your eyes become accustomed to the dark and you can watch them: couples clinging to each other; children either panicking or enjoying the chaos; young men trying to prove their bravery by marching off away from their friends (only to slow right down and hold their hands out disorientatedly as soon as they are away from the pack); french girls reaching the back wall, shrugging nonchalently and saying, ‘ah, c’est le mur…’ as if it really means something…

Every person’s experience is different, everyone interprets that experience differently, the darkness is liberating and the freedom is oppressive, and you never quite know what’s going on until it’s pretty much time to leave. It is how it is.

But the amazing thing is that it reveals how incredibly blinkered many of us are to the obvious difficulties of sharing a space we don’t understand with others we struggle to acknowledge. At one point, as I sat in the corner, a woman tripped over me.

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I didn’t see you there.”

Well, duh.

what puts the ‘man’ in manchester

So I’ve come to Manchester for a few days.

Ostensibly the main reason for this is that I am going to be competing in ‘Beat The Frog’ tonight, which is a gong show I’ve heard it’s useful to do well in for getting other gigs in the north-west. But I’m also here because I have a few friends living in Manchester that I’m hoping to catch up with.

Either way, I’m expecting to be a little hungover tomorrow.

I’ve never known quite what to make of Manchester. The people are generally nice and I’ve had some of my best EVER nights out here – the place seems to have a public drinking/drug culture that is genuinely built around music (while I’ve often felt like in London, and in many other places, it is the other way round).

But on the other hand, I can never quite get my head round how incredibly ugly the place is. Not the people so much – I mean, some of the locals aren’t exactly lookers but there’s enough students and cool young people to balance that out. It’s the architecture around the centre of the city. It’s all brick-and-concrete boxes, all so deliberately and claustrophobically functional.

I mean, it’s honest, I suppose – and perhaps the image of the ‘straight-talking’ Mancunian originates from this honesty – but it is a city that once said, look, we only need humans to be instrumental parts in our industrial machine. And we will mill and manufacture and produce with them, in great numbers, until they die. It is quantity and utility that interest us, even in humans.

And this is what Lowry painted and it’s why I hate his paintings – not because he painted badly but because he painted in quantities; massive numbers of people and buildings, without the detail that captures and discloses the intrinsic worth of a thing…perhaps this was his point, but it still doesn’t make his art – or Manchester – very much fun to look at.

And, perhaps at risk of stereotyping, it could be said that these are male criteria, that numbers and functionality are male interests and male needs. Manchester is probably a great place to be if you are, or are interested in, men and masculinity. It is without grace, without cunning and guile, without intrinsic beauty…perhaps even the name of the place is no accident.

None of which I will be mentioning in my set tonight. I think that would probably be unwise.

But I will be expecting the most functional, most set-up/punchliney performers and routines to get the best responses.

We’ll see if I’m right.

the real risks of whoring

I’m enjoying Leicester.

The Flashback show was brilliant last night. I’m really loving the complete lack of pressure on me in the whole thing. Unlike a scurvy show where if I’m not brilliant then it makes both me and the whole thing look bad, this is a no-lose situation: if I get the sound cues right and my little cameo goes well, it’s great; but if I fuck up it doesn’t really matter because nothing I can do can really mess up the whole show, and even if it did, it’s not my name or my face on the poster this time round. If things go horribly wrong, nobody who sees the show will ever remember me. It’s like doing a striptease in a mask so nobody knows it’s you. There’s no risk of my personal ‘credibility’ being lost.

What this means is that I don’t have to worry about committing my heart to the act like I do with my stand-up – I can do my little cameo bit, with the silly accent and blank expression and the slapstick pratfall, and just really enjoy doing it. So even though I haven’t really ever done any proper clowning or physical comedy before, I think the lack of pressure comes out in the performance and it’s been getting really good laughs…

Anyway, after the show we all went out in Leicester, where we ended up at a bizarre club night called the Imaginarium. Which was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever been to. It was a kind of burlesque-themed night where lots of people had dressed up and when we arrived the person on the door said, “the poetry brothel’s closing in ten minutes, so grab yourselves a whore.”

“Sorry?”

It turned out that one room was set aside as a ‘poetry brothel’. You went in, paid £3 and had a boy or girl in burlesque costume read you some poetry. Which I thought sounded interesting but potentially awful, because I like poetry a lot but it turned out to be the person’s own poetry. And I have read some really dire amateur poetry in my life.

As it turned out, the poet I got – called something like ‘Miss Mary’ or ‘Mistress Mary’ – was really, really good. I was a bit drunk at the time so annoyingly I can’t remember much of the poems she read, but the first one had some brilliant alliteration with consonents clattering sweetly on top of each other; and when she asked what kind of poetry I liked and I asked for something with a strong rhythm, she read one about a person succumbing to alzheimer’s that had a line in it about a ‘backwards sphinx’, which is such a good image that I could still remember it this morning. And then that was my time up and I had to go back out to find the others.

And it left me wondering about the different circumstances in which people are prepared to reveal parts of themselves. I’ve had this idea, which I think I’ve mentioned before, that stand-up is similar in many ways to striptease – it’s just a different part of the artist is being revealed. But whether it’s in jokes or poetry or stripping, the dynamic is different when it becomes a commodity. As soon as money is handed over, the personal risk, the part of yourself that you put into it, is disrupted somehow – in Marx’s terms, we’re alienated from the product of our labour, even when that product is something that would normally be deeply personal, like humour or sex or poetry. The paradox is that it’s precisely this lack of personal risk that frees you up to commit to it completely, because the danger of humiliation is mitigated slightly – it’s like the mask I mentioned earlier.

But poetry is a special case. People say stand-up is brave; even Simon Critchley – who is, in my humble opinion, the world’s most insightful philosopher of humour – told me in a reply to an email I wrote him that he thought that stand-up was ‘the hardest thing in the world’. But as long as it gets laughs, stand-up isn’t that hard or brave because the personal trauma that is revealed is cloaked in laughs. But poetry is much more naked, and the self-ness of it is guarded only by rhythm and metaphor.

I’ve written bad poetry myself before, and I even occasionally try (and often fail) to do slightly poetic things with my stand-up. But I’ve only once read my honest poetry for an audience, and it was horrible. I wouldn’t subject anyone to it unless they were a poet themselves, or specifically asked for it because they honestly wanted to know what was really going on in my brain; and even then I’d be quite likely to warn them about the dangers of that first.

So I think if you’re a good poet, reading your poetry to people, or letting them read it, is the hardest thing in the world. Even for money, the personal risk is just too great. And considering how relieved I am at the moment to just be getting laughs from turning up in my friends’ show and doing a comedy falling-over because it contains no personal risk, I’ve got to give ‘Mary’ credit for that.

(I heard some of the other poets weren’t that good. They don’t get that credit…)

updating for godot

I saw an advert on the tube last night which said they’re doing another run of Waiting For Godot at the Haymarket Theatre.

As I think I said when I wrote about it before, if you have any interest AT ALL in any kind of literature, philosophy, psychology or performance art – even if you are retarded and don’t like Beckett – then you have to go and see it. Seriously. You have to.

There’s a few cast changes (Roger Rees has replaced Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and, believe it or not, Matthew Kelly is doing Pozzo. At first I thought this might mean Ronald Pickup would emerge through a cloud of smoke to announce, ‘Tonight, Matthew, I will be playing Lucky’. But it won’t – it seems Kelly has gone back to being a serious actor nowadays, and he’s good at it).

The main reason you have to see it, though, is still McKellen as Estragon. He was phenomenal before and he still will be.

You can get tickets in the cheaper seats from £16 here, and if you don’t have a job then you might even be able to get tickets on the day for £11. Considering I paid £50 in the summer and though it was worth more, this is a total bargain.

I’m going again. Anybody wants to come, let me know…

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