Postcards from the Edge of the World

Dutch pool

Determined to squeeze every last drop of pleasure from continental Europe before Theresa and co wind up the drawbridge, last month we headed to Holland for the Welcome to the Village festival. The drive to Leeuwarden took years, following the North Sea coast through France and Belgium. Way too much time in a van with people I only normally hang out with at night, watching them consume a fat kid’s diet of McDonald’s, ice cream and Fruit Pastilles.

Van

But it was worth it, once we finally landed up in our Dutch paradise.

WTV

We’ve always said go hard or go home and we weren’t heading back through that Eurotunnel anytime soon. After-parties turned into pre-parties. We fell asleep upright on dancefloors. How could you fail to fall for a festival that provides a Polaroid dating service for artists? My companion scrawled a quotation from Nietzsche on a Post-it note — ‘morality is a metaphysical virus’ — and added my number.

Tinder

Blacklung made their European debut. Dan did some trademark staring and the girl at the back held his gaze. One day we’ll find her …

We went over the edge and back again, my companion bursting into unsolicited, incoherent monologues, a naked sleepwalker gradually stumbling into the bewildering arms of consciousness. That works for me. I need to catch a flight to Vienna on Monday. What?

The world revolved around our demented picnic bench. Knocking back drinks in the blink of an eye. Conversations laced with promise.

 

Serchio Bathing Party were in their element, performing on a stage on an inland beach with avant-garde pioneers Bismuth. The girls by the lake turned the pages of their paperbacks in time.

Hemingway

The Character even made an appearance.

The Character

In fact, he fell in love, lying in a bath with his Dutch doppelganger and rowing into the lake after the Serchio Bathing Party set. Some meeting of minds beneath the black hoods. Which all goes to show that there’s nothing fictional about secondary narcissism.

Lethe

But all good things must pass. ‘You can see why Hitler found it so easy to invade Holland,’ said my companion as we sped home across the flatlands in our Mercedes van, Arvo Pärt blasting from the stereo.

Before we got to Calais we took a moment to stretch our legs on the sun-drenched beaches of Dunkirk. We stared out to sea, contemplating borders and boundaries. The ghosts of war.

Beach

Give us some time to regroup in the White Hotel and soon enough we’ll be back, brothers-in-arms, liberators of the modern world, unshackling Europe from the invisible chains of the heart and mind, knowing we’re free to be whoever we want to be. Just like Dan from Oasis. Our hero.

Bernard + Edith

The Bunker, Salford, 27 February 2014

front

Lurking in the corner of the Bunker next to a mucky metal sink full of ice and bottles of Leffe Blonde, my companion composes his thoughts for an interview with Mary Anne Hobbs while cameramen, lighting people, runners, directors and producers bustle round the cage preparing for this afternoon’s live shoot.

‘We need to pre-empt their questions,’ I say. ‘Like: What’s the story with the Bunker? Or: What inspired the cage? You need to be prepared. What would you say if she asked you that?’

‘I’ve thought about this,’ he replies, worryingly. ‘And I’d say …’

He pauses for effect.

‘Francis Bacon.’

A wide, self-satisfied grin spreads over his face like a rash. From his look, I can tell there’s more.

‘And Kafka.’

‘Oh my god!’ I reply. ‘Please can that be your answer to absolutely any question you get asked?’

He nods.

‘Francis Bacon and Kafka.’

The wooden cage in front of us has hosted plenty of tortuous gigs over the last couple of years, but today it’s decked out in a new style, looking better than ever before, with velvet drapes, projections, leaves, lanterns and an overall décor concept that’s more Mighty Boosh than ‘In the Penal Colony’. If we could market it in a brochure to sell to London bands — which is what they want, having no original ideas of their own — we’d probably call it something like ‘oriental jungle’.

This is all the brainchild of Bernard + Edith, who are being filmed for a clip to be aired on the BBC red button to tie in with the recent 6 Music festival, which you must watch now, quick, while you can … If art is long and life is short, then the BBC red button is shorter (also available via the BBC iPlayer – after 22 mins 20 seconds – this week).

They’ve gone with a song called ‘Eyes on U’, the B-side to their début single ‘Poppy’. The shiver down my spine as the beat kicks in and Greta’s sultry vocals start to reverberate through the Bunker’s rotting wooden rafters makes me surer than ever that their time is truly upon them.

I stand and watch with a spellbound Mary Anne Hobbs and a companion whose interview looks like it might just have to wait, this band being even more important than his pseudo-intellectual wisdom, unbelievable as that may seem. Tired of writing reviews, I start to think about composing a poem instead, which goes only a very small way towards expressing something of the love that I feel for this young and outrageously talented ‘gurl boi duo’ right now.

In a Station of the Metrolink

Sways Stills

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

                — Ezra Pound

The fascist madman is said to have written these lines to convey the intense emotion he felt while waiting with commuters at the Concorde station of the Paris Métro.  Through precise imagery and the abandonment of verbs, he hoped to document a moment of revelation: ‘In a poem of this sort, one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.’

I recently found myself in the vicinity of Manchester Piccadilly train station, when something similar happened to me. Descending the escalator to the lower ground floor with a friend, I found myself suddenly confronted by a large black and white photograph of a man with a stubbly beard, slick-backed hair and expressionless eyes.

‘Who does he think he is?’ asked my friend, the writer Austin Collings, wearing his trademark fedora hat and round spectacles like a cross between James Joyce and Dr Who. He frowned at the photograph, wavering between complete contempt and reluctant admiration; Austin doesn’t really do the middle ground. ‘David Beckham or something?’

Being drunk and low in spirits — something about a girl, it always is — this thing outward and objective was speaking to me; and the inward, subjective thing I felt was anger. A swarming anger that directed itself straight back at this preening poseur who no doubt, given the inherent injustice of the universe, gets all the girls. I recognised the narcissist as one of the SWAYS Records fraternity: you know, the ones who shamelessly peddle themselves as Salford’s cultural regenerators while being bankrolled by the likes of Manchester City Council and Bella Union Records (a.k.a. ‘London’). Instead of writing a poem, I threw an empty bottle of Polish lager at his face. Nobody seemed to care and I think, on balance, Ezra would’ve been proud.

With little else on offer by way of entertainment, Austin persuaded me to take in some of the other images which form part of an exhibition called ‘SWAYS Stills’ by Natalie Curtis. According to an information panel on the platform, the exhibition documents a night in the life of the label, which mainly seems to involve them drinking to excess and taking baths.

Although Beckham was still omnipresent, like some seedy God of a SWAYS-shaped underworld, things started to improve. Seeing the world through Natalie’s eye is always a transformative experience and I found myself undertaking a strange Metrolink journey of the mind: I cheered up, slightly. One of the most pleasing aspects of the exhibition was that she’s elected to remove Beckham’s face from most of the shots. Instead, you mainly get to see pictures of his feet while he’s lying in the bath. I’m not sure what this is meant to signify, exactly, but I found it funny. Perhaps she was subjecting him to some kind of artistic ridicule? In some of the images he’s still in the fuxking bath holding a bottle of wine and there’s a vaguely funereal, suicidal feel to the whole thing. The exhibition offers no further clues as to how the night in question actually ended but you live in hope.

As I turned to leave, I saw Austin climb onto the cracked Beckham lightbox, installing himself at the top in a sit-in protest, like a modern-day Swampy. Last of the great contrarians, he’d got it in his head to save the exhibition from its imminent dismantling because he found its subject so sublimely idiotic.

‘Is nothing sacred?’ he cried, cracking out a bottle of whisky from his jacket pocket. ‘I’m not leaving unless someone assures me these photos are going to be replaced by a shrine to Robin Thicke.’

Rumour has it that he’s grown dreadlocks under his fedora and is still there to this day. Why not go see for yourself? Time is running out, for us all …

The SWAYS Stills exhibition by Natalie Curtis will be on display at Manchester Piccadilly Metrolink station until 24 January 2014.

Image © Natalie Curtis, 2014

Interview with Naked (on Drugs)

Naked on Drugs 20130427 Manchester

Here they come, straight from the brains of Bulgakov, a French clown in tartan trousers leading a slippery cast of sinners in a danse macabre, drunkards and looters, brothel-goers and revellers, waltzing into the rain, two by two. Hurrah! Hurrah! The heavens crackle, a wired cacophony of clarinets, violins and psychotic guitars pouring down over Salford. A black cat adjusts his monocle under the full moon’s glare. Reason falls and scatters like a deck of cards.

Those who have stayed indoors can hardly believe what they’re seeing. They stare at their widescreens, transfixed, as shopping centres burn in the cities of the night and fundamentalists invade the airports, trying hard not to see through the lines of static to the truth that lies beneath: the violence of a father’s anger, the violence of a mother’s love …

All it takes are shaky jazz drums, the anxieties of a nation, and the earth starts to tremble, cathedrals go crashing to the ground. What kind of lunacy is this? Grave misgivings consolidate into a dreadful realisation: the polka dot shirts, braces, green leather jackets, dyed ginger hair … You always knew this had to add up to something despicable.

They call themselves Naked (on Drugs) and expose themselves with non-cha-lance (n. the trait of remaining calm and seeming not to care; a casual lack of concern), strutting round the city like it’s a big top, stuffed full of contradiction, fit to burst. Children of paradise, impoverished yet aristocratic, so radiant under the gas lamps. Watch them as they straddle the high wire!

Sad clowns! Pantomime villains!

A slip of the foot. The coke-guzzling crowd gasps. Your heart misses a beat.

The authorities will have something to say about this! You can be sure of that! They’ve taken out a full page advert in the Manchester Evening News to put the working man’s mind at ease. There’s a crack team of investigators on the case. They eat machete gangs for breakfast, these boys. All fucking over it mate.

Time to make ourselves scarce. As evening slips her ring over our finger, we retire to bohemia …

Naked on Drugs 20130427 Manchester

Q. Who are Naked on Drugs?

A. The identity of their ring leader remains a mystery. He’s French, after all. Have you seen the way he dances, the way he raises his eyebrows, as though suddenly alarmed? Then he looks at you askance, quizzically, as if to say, have you worked it out yet?

Those spiky eyes will have your hair out.

Q: How do they walk?

A: Tall and proud as the poplars of Auschwitz. Devilishly handsome, with plastic shopping bags clinking at his side, Byronic Luke does impressions of Prestwich gamblers on their daily scuttle between the bookie and the local. It’s all so funny but you know this will not end well. Your mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars and all that.

Q: What does their attire signify?

A: They want to make darkness visible.

Naked on Drugs 20130427 Manchester

We settle into a game of chess, putting out feelers for the myriad possibilities that might unfold from this moment. The future can spin off in any conceivable direction, just like the past: it gets lost in geometrical madness, drums and cymbals drifting over on the wind from the family camp, terrifying Europe with the true voice of the Lager.

Checkmate.

Luke takes straight whiskies with his cans of Guinness. Scrabbling for a lighter down the side of the sofa, he tells me they’ve been spending time with dissolute types from the wrong side of the river, the sort of people who hang out in baths.

Naked on Drugs 20130427 Manchester

On the wall, there’s a painting of a gorilla with a cocked rifle in its mouth. Whose flat is this, so dingy and allegorical? Somebody call a translator. They need help.

We all do.

The front door flies open and we’re joined by a filmmaker wearing black-rimmed glasses and a multi-coloured tank top. He has a troubled look on his face. He explains how he nearly got into the wrong car, even though he’s familiar with all the cars. To make things right, he’s been cooking up this gift.

Then there’s news of an amorous black girl called Wanda: model and muse, barmaid and revolutionary. I like the sound of her.

Naked on Drugs 20130427 Manchester

My companion calls us to the kitchen table, emptying the contents of a brown paper envelope. Memory unwinds as we sift through a pile of old photographs. The dark ocean of time spits forth its endless debris. They scare me, these pictures, foreshadowing that fateful moment when our limp bodies are washed ashore and the music stops.

Q: How did they meet?

A: A French gangster on the run took a wrong turn at a roundabout near Milton Keynes. Their eyes met across the bypass. Sébastien lit Luke’s cigarette, told him not to cry, to come with him … And just like that bypass, they’ve been running ever since.

Q: Who is Lee Ann?

A: Only child, blue-eyed girl, she became known to them when they first settled in this city.

Foreigners! Immigrants! Hospital tourists!

It’s enough to make your blood boil.

Her father was a preacher, a man of the cloth, a fearer of God, he couldn’t smell the sulphur until it was too late, opening his doors to cinephiles and porn-fingerers, dandies who would deflower his fair-skinned daughter as he prayed to the Lord up above, begging for a release from his earthly desires while ejaculating all over his pretty choirboys.

[Ed. — A cheap shot.]

Poor Lee Ann! She’s taken to her bed where she speaks in tongues and scratches the walls. She’ll be married on a dunghill and they will play the wedding march.

Photography (c) Natalie Curtis at 16apr79.com.

‘Lee Ann’s Skin’, the limited edition debut 7” single (with free digital download & bonus track) by Naked (on Drugs), is now available to pre-order from the SWAYS Records store.

Esben and the Witch + Embers

The Führer Bunker, Salford, 9 February 2013

SwaysRecords: Alice and Faustus 09/02/13

The Bunker is under siege. As night slips its black hood over the condemned city, a long queue of middle-aged music fans steadily fills the short front corridor, stretching out into the street where two shifty touts are selling tickets for £60 each: a healthy 1000% mark up on their face value. Tonight’s guests are well-dressed, well-fed and way out of their comfort zone. Wrapped up in their branded fleeces and scarves, they look like they’ve got lost on the way to the Debenhams sale. The poor guy on the door does his best to apologise for the delay but the bourgeoisie are getting restless. Why are they still waiting in a gloomy concrete tunnel, when the internet said that the event would begin at 8pm? Why aren’t they experiencing things like entertainment or pleasure? They don’t understand. This isn’t part of the deal they made with life. Part of me wants to explain that this place is called the Führer Bunker for a reason: the stained walls, iron gates and dimly-lit halls seem to echo the architectonics of mass extermination. They should be thankful that nobody’s handing out soap and asking them to undress. Instead, my companion and his idiotic, hat-wearing hipster friends are selling them warm cans of lager and cider out of multipacks from the cash and carry: a slightly feeble gesture that seems to lie somewhere in-between hospitality and out and out extortion. The SWAYS salesmen shuttle back and forth, getting berated for not having any premium brands, clearly out of their depth with these consumers.

Something is rotten in the state of Salford. Heaven will direct us.

I’ve not been myself of late. I feel distracted, not quite with it. Whenever I see friends, they say things like, ‘I almost ran you over yesterday.’ Of course, it’s about a girl. It always is. And this particular one has got under my skin. I don’t really feel like being here, but at least it’s a chance to escape the psychosomatic dragnet of bitterness and regret and forget about things for a while, so I resolve to throw myself into a night that’s bursting at the seams after weeks of anticipation that’s for the most part been fuelled by the meteoric rise to prominence of opening band Embers. Before Christmas they posted videos of two songs, ‘Hollow Cage’ and ‘Part of the Echoes’, performed live at Gorton Monastery. It was impressive stuff and ever since the internet has been awash with blogs and websites talking about Embers. And members of Embers talking about Embers and their members. It’s been difficult to look at a computer screen without stumbling across one of these delicate flowers telling the world how ‘overwhelmed’ they are by the public response, just in case you were unsure quite how well they were doing.

Their prolonged Gwyneth Paltrow moment has steadily come to focus on tonight’s gig, which many of us had assumed was going to be headlined by Brighton’s Esben and the Witch. Apparently not. This is Embers’ show and the truth is we could have another Hillsborough on our hands, with one of them even worrying about crowd members collapsing in the inevitable crush, warning them to take care and look after each other ahead of their trip to the shitty away ground that is the Bunker. Like their fans, Embers have clearly never been here before. If they had, they’d have realised that of the numerous likely causes of death — machete gangs, rock wool fire, gas leaks — being physically crushed isn’t one of them. The stage is, after all, a wooden cage that you could just step into if things got a bit tight. There’s no perimeter fencing.

But who’s laughing here? Because it transpires that the vast majority of the crowd that’s slowly filtering into the main Exhibition Room really is here for Embers, not Esben and the Witch. Give them a chance, I think. Pull yourself together. After all, they’re nice guys. The only reason I follow all the online hyperbole is because I’m friends with them — or at least I was, before I slipped this nasty dagger into their unsuspecting backs, this essay on pain and transference.

I first met their guitarist at a gig that changed my life forever, when M O N E Y played their ‘comeback’ show at Salford’s Sacred Trinity church and I rediscovered how music can transfigure the human soul. I described our meeting in my review: he was the one who staggered into the toilets singing ‘God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to You’. The next time I met him was when Now Wave put on Alt-J, M O N E Y, G R E A T W A V E S and PINS in a disused office block as part of the FutureEverything festival. He was splayed on the tiled floor in a drunken heap next to a plastic yellow sign that carried the warning, ‘Caution: Slippery Surface’. How could you fail to love such a guy?

Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that tonight isn’t destined to end in this kind of gloury. It just isn’t happening for them. Beset by technical problems apparently caused by Esben and the Witch turning up late and conducting a rather starry and protracted sound-check — clearly no-one had told them who was really headlining this sold out Now Wave show — which left them with little time to prepare, Embers fail to reach the heights of Gorton monastery or previous live performances where they’ve filled venues with their epic, cinematic post-rock. Tetchiness and barely-veiled aggravation emanate from the band. They never relax into their set or really engage with the crowd, instead moaning about the sound and scratching their heads inside what really does turn out to be a hollow cage. I get the sense that their time will come when they do their own show in their own space on their own terms. This is not that moment. With mournful violins now prominent in the mix, backed by a bit of discordant wailing and punctuated by some burly drum rolls, this reminds me too much of the ex-girlfriend’s whinging so I decide to go outside and smoke cigarettes with the rest of the misanthropes.

There are only two of them: clearly indifference to Embers represents a minority opinion. One is my friend Alice — a very special musician in the making — and she’s with someone in a Gram Parsons t-shirt and leather jacket who I’m pretty sure introduces himself as Faustus. He reminds me of Vincent Gallo in Buffalo 66. Drunkenly, I enthuse about the opening sequence in which Gallo gets out of jail needing a piss and meets Christina Ricci at her dance class: it’s one of my favourite scenes in the history of cinema.

Dr Faustus hasn’t enjoyed Embers either. I don’t know what darker matters worm away at his soul, but he describes them as ‘a blank sheet of A4’ and draws comparisons with Elbow, a band whom he regards as unfit for human consumption: ‘Greggs is a massive institution. It doesn’t mean that it’s good.’ The next time I meet him, it will be as he leaves the SWAYS-curated night at Fuel early, accusing opening band B L O O M of giving him bad vibes. I feel like I’ve found a brother in adversity.

It upsets me that there’s no music going on inside that’s more for them, for us. Standing out here is like crying in your bedroom at your own birthday party while the more popular boys, who secretly bully you, kiss the girls and eat all your cake. Now older and wiser, drinking wine out the bottle and smoking cigarettes on the street instead, we pour forth the vitriol that’s the only succour for those of us who find ourselves to be permanent outsiders in the disappointing party that is life. Fuxk the Bunker. ‘There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn’ (Camus). That place was starting to feel too much like somewhere we belonged. That sort of feeling never lasts. We should’ve learned that by now. I’m reminded of that Woody Allen line in Annie Hall, where Alvy Singer paraphrases Groucho Marx: ‘I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.’

Things don’t improve much with Esben and the Witch. It’s just nowhere near the classic Bunker performances of M O N E Y, G R E A T W A V E S and Savages. Back then my skin tingled but tonight it crawls. I try to shake myself out of it, reminding myself that on those nights I felt that nothing better was happening anywhere in the world at that specific moment in time, that I was truly living in an earthly paradise. Perhaps my expectations for these shows have been set unfeasibly high. Surely there will be other nights when I’ll feel myself touched like that once again, our flying souls united in ecstasy? Maybe I haven’t been entirely forsaken …

Dr Faustus leaves with Alice, complaining that Esben and the Witch have drained him of his life force. Half-heartedly trying to chat up a solitary girl on the edge of the pack, I get hushed by a well-heeled member of the Debenhams gang. She gives me a look of utter disgust and that’s the final straw. I’ve had enough of this shit. Now’s the time for me to leave too, time to find some place where I can scream and shout and drink until I drop, safe in the knowledge that the rest is silence, my dear; you’ll have an eternity of that soon enough.

Image © Natalie Curtis at www.16apr79.com.

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/.