The Machete Gangs of Salford

The Führer Bunker, Salford, and the Salutation Hotel, Manchester, 16 June 2012

The President is not happy. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning, he’s wet, he’s cold — summer! You call this SUMMER? F’fuxkssake — and inevitably, this being a Friday night, he’s blind drunk. It’s a bitter end to a bitter night. Why does he even go there? What a bunch of cunts! Cutting a figure that’s part second-hand car salesman, part tabloid hack, he staggers through Salford in his spivvy grey suit, his damp, dandruff-flecked hair clinging to his skull, meandering up a deserted, windy Great Ducie street, past the bolted shutters of discount electrical stores and Asian clothes shops, back towards the Bunker, where he’s somehow ended up plying his grubby trade, doing his best to provide counsel to a bunch of naïve youths who somehow took a hold of his heart.

Tonight was spent with the old guard. They were all there, the usual crowd, the same old has-beens propping up the bar: his peers, erstwhile friends, the type who’ve been there, done that and think they have some interesting stories to tell. What is it, he wonders, that compels him to spend the fag end of his days with the ghouls of that Northern Quarter dive? A grubby pub plastered with faded music posters, faded memories, everyone cosily nestled in the warm fug of nostalgia. You smell it as soon as you walk in: the lingering fart of Manchester music past, that ancient stench.

As the evening solemnly, inevitably lurched towards oblivion, supping pints and knocking back double rums, they’d seen fit to round on him with taunts and jibes, the smoke-filled atmosphere of the lock-in suddenly thick with bad blood.

What’s going on with that poncey label of yours, then?

Any of your boys written a half-decent song yet?

Bunch of posh wankers, I’ve heard. What you doing wasting your money on them for?

At one point things had threatened to get proper nasty. Someone let slip that it was the President who’d scrawled ‘FUCK 251’ in the bogs (it was) and Peter Hook took that as a cue to remove his leather jacket meaningfully. A drunk and droopy-eyed Guy Garvey scuttled out the door like a rat caught in a bonfire while Mark E. Smith fell into hysterics, gurning away at the end of the bar with his can of Red Stripe. ‘Fight, fight, fight!’ he chanted, banging his can on the bar with full-hearted malevolence. Hard to tell whether this reaction dated back to a pint of lager the President had poured over his head a few months ago, or whether he’s completely forgotten and that’s just the way he is … Strange one, that Mark.

In the end, the President had been bundled out in an undignified struggle with a cursing, bald-headed bouncer.

Just understand, it’s a dirty business lads

With his open mouth alternating between snatches of the cold kebab that he holds in one hand and furious drags of the soggy roll up that he holds in the other, he tries to rid himself of the rising anger, the late night desire to kick and punch and stab. He passes smashed-up bus shelters and the dark shaft of the Strangeways ventilation tower looms high above the prison walls on his right. Feeling the chill of one hundred hanging ghosts, he turns down an indistinct side road, contemplating another night on his camp bed in the live room, strapped into his padded cell, when all of a sudden two puffer-jacketed clowns step out of nowhere. Arms crossed, they block his path.

‘Evening Sir,’ says one of them. Not in a confrontational way: casual, but with intent. Clean-shaven, short-cropped hair, well-dressed: some kind of fag, perhaps? Being in no sort of mood for funny business, the President shoots him a bloodshot stare, baring his yellow and black tooth-stumps in mock greeting.

‘We’re from Greater Manchester Police, Sir. Just making a few routine checks round the area.’ The man hands him a card. ‘There’ve been disturbances, you see. Breaches of the peace. Might I ask what a gentleman like your good self is doing round here at this time of night? You’ll appreciate it’s not the most,’ he looks round theatrically, ‘salubrious of areas …’

‘I live here,’ replies the President, too fast. ‘Well, not live here, like, not what you’d call living, as such, obviously, that wouldn’t be right …’ He backtracks. ‘My business is here, see — there!’ He waves his half-eaten kebab in the direction of a single story concrete building in the distance that looks like a post-apocalyptic scout hut. The jagged side wall is exposed and stripped of plaster, like half the building has been ripped off in a gale.

‘Ah, so you’re the gentleman who runs the, ahem, music establishment!’ The copper turns and smiles at his sidekick. ‘What good luck! We’d been hoping to have a little chat with you.’

After an embarrassing pause the President finally locates the keys to the metal bunker door and leads the officers inside, crashing into a discarded Sovtek amp as he descends into the gloom in search of the light switch.

‘Sorry officer … bands,’ he explains with a contemptuous curl of his thin upper lip, as though the word alone might win him some sympathy. He leads the way down a subterranean corridor plastered with gig posters that mean very little to anyone, other than to the little-known guitar bands that played them. The two officers pick their way through a rag-and-bone obstacle course. The corridor contains the essentials of a human habitation — a sink, a fridge, a bin — but all out of context, nestling amongst dank cardboard boxes that spill forth reams and reams of unsold vinyl, some more recently delivered than others. Empty beer cans and tea cups line every surface. The President holds open a door to one of the inner rooms and leans in. ‘Marten!’ he yells into the darkness. ‘Marten!’ He pauses for a reply that’s not forthcoming. ‘You better wake up sunshine! There’s two rozzers here and they want to talk to you!’ He turns and flashes an apologetic smile at the puzzled officers.

Eventually a groan can be heard inside. ‘You what?’

‘They say there’s a bunch of gangsters roaming these streets, mate, and there’s a machete blade with your name on it.’ The words sizzle off his tongue like pig fat under a grill. ‘So I suggest that you haul yourself out of that camp bed, listen to what these gentlemen have to say, then get on the blower to that weird mate of yours and tell him that as far as tomorrow night is concerned, the whole thing is well and truly off!’

The next afternoon a group of people who’d been hoping to spend the night seeing out the last Führer Bunker Exhibition with a bang, full of excitement at the prospect of welcoming Liverpudlian headliners Outfit into their arms, instead congregate in the hip Northern Quarter bar Common Room to discuss the gig that never was and to work out what, if anything, might be done.

Not much, it seems. My companion is disconsolate. He explains that the derelict warehouse across the road from the Führer Bunker has been pinpointed by the Salford police as a den of iniquity, a hotbed of crime used for prostitution, drug dealing and the storage of stolen goods. It’s now the centre-point for a large-scale undercover operation.The only redeeming features we can find in this news are that, as my companion puts it, this is ‘Atrocity Boy gold’, and the last time we trespassed into that warehouse we decided to take a minor Hollywood actor, laptops and a borrowed HD video camera with us — and survived. This at least gets a smile. We imagine the fast-food guzzling officers of Operation Hutu sitting in their unmarked patrol car brandishing their Tasers, their jaws dropping in disbelief as a bunch of painfully oblivious pseudo-punks in skinny jeans merrily prance into the heart of darkness in the name of their ‘art’.

‘Did you read today’s Guardian piece about Outfit?’ my companion asks. ‘That’s what could have been. Gloury. Everything was just perfect! And then this happens … ’

Young men wearing chinos and thick-rimmed glasses lounge about the place reading the weekend supplements and drinking continental lager, while chattering girls drink gin and tonics with lime, all of us watched over from the top of the bar by a pictorial homage to the dearly departed: Christopher Hitchens, MCA, Steve Irwin … The walls are covered with newly-commissioned murals. Flustered waitresses with aprons over polka dot dresses emerge from the kitchen carrying plates of burgers and fries, wiping their damp fringes from their eyes with the backs of their arms.

The lead singer, Adam, from would-be support band Weird Era is sitting on his own in the corner, his long black hair masking his face as he stares into his half-empty pint. Only stowaway Yousif from Kult Cøuntry seems to have any optimism, pacing around the bar with his mobile phone attached to his ear as though determined to make tonight happen through a sheer act of will. There’s talk that the gig might yet go ahead across town.

‘I’ve answered forty one phone calls today,’ laments my companion, pulling his own buzzing iPhone out his pocket. It’s cracked in the corner from the time he threw it against a brick wall on Oldham Street in an act of penance. ‘People don’t believe us about the machete gangs. They think it’s a publicity stunt!’

As my companion slides to answer for the forty-second time, my wandering eye settles on a booth across the room where a beautiful foreign girl with dark, frizzy hair sits eating nachos with a group of friends. She looks like she’s South American. Brazilian or something. Puerto Rican, perhaps? Her thick-set, thick-looking lover sits next to her with a hairy, proprietorial arm round the back of her chair. She glances back at me, detecting my gaze, and at this precise moment everything changes. I feel myself lighten, as though my world’s centre of gravity has suddenly shifted, and the words of John Berryman’s fourth dream song unfurl in my mind until the poem is there in its entirety, intact and perfect as only a poem can be: a poem being the only work of art you can carry around with you in your memory in its pure form. It’s my favourite of the Dream Songs — that tragic and euphoric cycle that leads us through the inter-continental drama of poor Henry’s life, accompanied by the put downs of his strange blacked-up friend, or enemy, or alter ego, whatever, Mr Bones. The best thing about this poem is the way that Berryman elevates staring at girls into an art form.

Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken páprika, she glanced at me
twice.
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying
‘You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry’s dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.’ I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni. —Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.

—Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes
downcast … The slob beside her    feasts … What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes.  She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
—Mr. Bones: there is.

As she gets up to go to the bathroom, I gaze mistily at my own black-haired and delicious Latina, who is wearing a short yellow dress with a tropical design, a dizzying splurge of palm trees and islands covering her warm skin. The dress clings to her lithe body, light as a petal. With Berryman’s dream song ringing in my ears, I spy my window of opportunity. After she passes me with intent, snaking her hips like she knows I’m watching, I feel overcome by some sort of inner compulsion, like my fate is no longer in my own hands, like Henry is willing me not to suffer his paralysis. Poetry did this to me, your Honour! I am not myself. I am instead waiting to seize the moment, staring at each twitch of the toilet door. My companion chats away on his phone, unsuspecting. When my girl from Mars walks out I spring to my feet.

Shocked, her thin eyebrows arched, she eventually breaks into a smile. ‘Hola!’ she purrs, as I try and catch my breath. Her nose and cheeks are dappled with freckles, like a leopard.

‘You are the hottest one for years of night!’ I yell after a potentially fatal cliff-hanger of a pause, before boldly grabbing her hand and rushing her past the open and full gobs of her friends and lover, out into the street, where we dive into a waiting taxi.

A turbaned Afghan with a long white beard turns round and emits a stuttering, high-pitched laugh. A hard-pointed sound, there’s no kindness in it, no warmth, just malicious glee, as though he’s about to take pleasure in some despicable act. I hold the girl in the yellow dress tightly in my arms and pronounce our destination.

The taxi driver turns and reaches up to switch on the meter. I don’t know what I’m doing, but this is happening.

We squeeze into the packed front bar of the Salutation Hotel just in time to catch Naked on Drugs tuning up. The place is heaving with young and old drunks desperate to get their fix of pleasure from this resuscitated night and I’m delirious with the success of my impromptu abduction. I hand the hottest one a pint of cider. She smiles back at me, dreamily. I don’t think she speaks English. Or Japanese, for that matter. But who gives a fuxk? On a totally different level, I feel like we’re talking the same language.

Rather than tuning up, it turns out that Naked on Drugs have actually started to play their set and they provide a Lynchian soundtrack to this, the surreal thriller of my life, with Gallic frontman Sebastian Perrin howling and barking into the microphone, occasionally squawking atonally on his clarinet, while lanky guitarist Luke Louche stands with his back to the crowd, creating eerie, reverb-heavy riffs that climb the walls before rattling back down and crashing against our lobes. Woollen-haired gig-canceller Marten stands at the back corner, hauled from his camp bed to provide repetitive, sordid bass lines with his sex face on. The jazzy, shuffling drums come courtesy of Marlon Brando playing Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now — only this guy is just a bit more menacing. They sound like a nightmare. They’re incredible.

In search of more cider, I nestle into the bar next to drummer boy Billy Byron from MONEY, who crouches down in front of me to pour vodka into his pint glass of coke.

‘Cover me,’ comes the command from somewhere near my crotch.

When he’s done he straightens up. He looks shifty. I feel his hand in my top pocket. ‘What are you doing?’ I ask.

‘I’m fingering you in the pocket,’ he replies. ‘What are you going to do about it?’

From our tightly packed vantage point, I notice that the hottest one has squeezed closer to the front to get a better view of Naked on Drugs. I’m a bit worried that she might be trying to escape, but at one point she turns round and smiles. We ogle her from across the bar.

‘Babe,’ says Billy Byron.

I tell him all about the kidnapping. I explain that I think I’m in love. She waves at us coquettishly. We both wave back. When he thinks I’m not looking, Billy Byron puts a pretend mobile phone to his ear and mouths the words ‘call me’.

Naked on Drugs have stolen all the air with their panting and the room feels warm and close. Cider ignites my veins. I kiss Byron on the cheek, wishing him all the luck in the world, then stumble to the toilets where I dash my face with water and suckle on the cold tap like it might save me. Staring at my dripping face in the mirror, I still don’t feel like myself, entirely. Strange mask of flesh and bone: spasms flutter beneath the surface. Japanese blood, English bred. The scars seem to belong to someone else, someone from the past or a character from some half-remembered work of fiction. I clamp my teeth up and down, biting, biting … There’s a demon in each one of us and right now I’m alone with mine. His skin within my skin. His eyes behind my eyes. The dead do not die.

I feel a hand on my shoulder and a familiar face swims up behind me.

‘Come on,’ says my companion. ‘We’re off.’

‘What?’ I reply, uncomprehending. But before I can offer any resistance he’s bungled me outside and ushered me into a waiting black cab. The door thuds shut and I’m trapped in an uncomfortably tight space with a haggard-looking President seeming like he hasn’t slept for days slumped in the corner with his top shirt button undone and his thin tie loosened, an unlit roll up hanging out the corner of his mouth. Jamie Lee from MONEY is bent forward on the pull down seat opposite him with his anorak hood up, devouring a takeaway. Behind his protective Perspex partition, the turbaned Afghan with the long white beard turns round with a wide grin, ‘He he, he he, he he, he he!’ Silently, without looking up, Jamie Lee stretches out his arm and offers me a cold Chicken McNugget.

‘Wait!’ I shout as the taxi driver pulls away from the madness. ‘What about the hottest one? We need to go back and get her! She can’t be left alone with Billy Byron!’

‘What the hell are you on about?’ asks the President.

What the hell am I on about? Where have these people been? I tell them everything at breakneck speed. Time is of the essence. I tell them all about the gangs and the knives and the hot girl in Common Room and the dream song.

‘You’ve been hanging round with Naked on Drugs too much,’ says my companion when I’m done. ‘What the hell are you on about? Undercover police? Machete gangs? You sound paranoid.’

‘Deluded!’ snorts the President. ‘Like any girl with her head screwed on is going to want to have anything to do with a freak like you!’

‘Good story though,’ says Jamie Lee.

‘You can keep me well out of it,’ mutters the President, still wheezing at his own witticism.

‘Wish we’d thought of it earlier,’ says my companion. ‘That way we might’ve stopped so many people coming down to the bunker tonight.’

‘It was rammed,’ says Jamie Lee, his mouth stuffed full of fries.

‘Crazy,’ says my companion.

‘The last one, too,’ sighs the President, suddenly seeming overcome with something like nostalgia. ‘What a way to go.’

Images © Natalie Curtis at http://www.16apr79.com/.

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