Thursday, 2 October 2014

John Grant, John Lydon, and deconstructing Barbarella

I’ve witnessed John Grant perform on a few unforgettable occasions: a bare-bones grand piano set at the Bridgewater Hall as support for Efterklang; on the Glastonbury Park Stage in the middle of the afternoon in shorts and flip-flops (him, not me); and at the hottest evening ever inside Manchester’s Ritz, the day before he had his Mac stolen. Tomorrow (Friday 3 October) I will be pinching myself good ‘n’ proper as I travel to Media City to see John perform select cuts from Pale Green Ghosts with the BBC Philharmonic as part of the ‘Philharmonic Presents’ series, previously featuring Culture Club and Jarvis Cocker. Pale Green Ghosts is becoming an album for all time, one that the Philharmonic will no doubt be able to find new dimensions in.

On 9 October, old punks, young punks, bookworms and musos will be crowding into the Albert Hall on Peter Street to hear Dave Haslam interview the Richard III of punk-rock, Mr John Lydon. Lydon’s autobiography, Anger is An Energy: My Life Uncensored, is just about to hit the shelves so it seems he’s in the mood to talk which is good news for us, and for Dave. Lydon has, in his way, been an acute cultural critic over the decades, often in short and sweary portions, never without substance. Let’s see if he has insight into where he himself exists in the peculiar maelstrom of UK musical culture.

It’s hard to believe four years have passed since Peaches Christ and her divine crew of ‘Frisco drag queens turned the Cornerhouse upside down with a live-action show and premier screening of All About Evil, the debut feature length from Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ). I like to think some of that residual performative magic stuck around; there’s been an explosion of drag and performance in the city ever since. On 11 October Peaches returns to Screen 1 with Bearbarella, a drag deconstruction and outré comedy based on the 1968 cult classic Barbarella, which will also be screened. Lady Bear takes the title role while the rest of the cast includes Manchester’s own Cha Cha Boudoir performers, so dress your sci-fi best and be ready to holler; there is nothing else like this in town.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Manchester coming of age

Summer 2014.  I’m walking down Burton Road in West Didsbury, the street where I’ve lived for almost a year, and I see Vini Reilly standing in the doorway of one of the bars, wearing sandals and smoking a rollie. It’s Vini that you can hear playing guitar on ‘I Know Very Well How I Got My Name’, probably the most-purchased and least-listened-to Morrissey B-side (it’s on the other side of ‘Suedehead’). I must have played it a thousand times, on vinyl and then on my first guitar. (When I was thirteen years old, I really did dye my hair gold). At the bar on Burton Road, Vini looks like he doesn’t quite know if he’s arriving or leaving. We lock eyes for just a second. It’s eighteen years since the IRA bomb went off in town, and I got my A-level results and a place at Manchester University.

Yesterday. I am sitting in my Auntie Dee and Uncle John’s bedroom in Stretford and I can see the gasworks out the window and I’m struggling through the guitar chords for ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ as I have done for twenty years. Outside, dozens of Man United fans file past the house, fresh from a four–nil victory over QPR. Downstairs I can hear Dee, a Dubliner, chatting away with my other half Oisín, whose story started in Australia and came to Manchester via Ireland. This is at once exactly where I think I’m meant to be, exactly where I most want to be, and exactly where I never thought I would end up. It’s eighteen years since I moved to Manchester, half my life ago. I have lived here longer now than I’ve lived anywhere. I did it.

John drives us past the end of King’s Road on the way home and when we get dropped off in West Didsbury we walk along Burton Road again and the sky is criss-crossed with jet trails. I want to write something to mark my coming of age in Manchester because I feel suddenly emotional about it, so at home I start listening to some songs to try and level out my thoughts a bit. Morrissey’s ‘Lost’ is first – ‘jet trails in the sky leave one thought behind…’ – followed by his epic Raymonde cover, ‘No One Can Hold A Candle To You’, which I always used to pester Dave Cottrill to play at the Star & Garter, and he always did. Billy Bragg doing ‘A New England’ at the Kirsty McColl memorial concert, Eddie Reader doing ‘Dear John’ the same night, and eventually back around to ‘I Know Very Well How I Got My Name’, with Vini on the guitar.

So far, nothing in my life, and by my life I mean Manchester, has gone the way I imagined it, and certainly not the way I planned it, since the plan from childhood was to live in Manhattan, hence the portmanteau of my blog. I thought by now I would have at least two novels published and would live off the proceeds and be an activist. Instead, this month I will pay the rent with my fee from being the theatre writer at the Manchester Evening News and with the money I made from the gay RnB night I run. If I was a character in a novel it would be something by Tama Janowitz and everyone would agree that it was interesting but the characters’ lives seemed a bit contrived. We haven’t starved yet.

How to celebrate my ‘birthday’? The same way you always should: have a party, look back a bit, and count your blessings. The party has been had, at Festival No. 6, aka ‘Manchester by the sea’. I DJ’d there, partied until my screws came loose with some of the best people who live in this town, heard Weatherall play my favourite Frankie Knuckles edit, and saw Pet Shop Boys perform ‘It’s A Sin’ under the night sky. As for looking back, this is my twelfth address in Manchester and I remember something good and bad about them all. I am very happy where I am. I work in this place all day long looking down Burton Road, and I never get tired of it. Oisín comes home and we make food and we make plans for a future that might or might not turn out a certain way.

Some things never seem to change. Manchester is a city in terrible poverty.  Morrissey has no record contract but he’s still out on tour. The Council’s assault on our architecture makes Manchester feel less like itself to me than ever before – and I arrived on a bomb site, remember. It will always be home here, but I’d move to Berlin or Brooklyn in the morning. I’m saving the blessings bit for when I count backwards from fifteen at Trafford General next week. I won’t run out before I get to zero.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Another gorgeous Northern Quarter video

This time it's footage from the BANG street party on 24 August, filmed by Sarah Jenny Johnson. Beautiful.

BANG STREET PARTY from Sarah Jenny Johnson on Vimeo.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Nostalgia, bulldozers, and Humberto Velez’s ‘The Storming’

Early next year, Cornerhouse relocates and is reborn as HOME on First Street. As I sat down to continue my research for Humberto Velez’s project ‘The Storming’ – the immersive large-scale installation that will be the final staged event at Cornerhouse in April –­ I saw a story tweeted from the Manchester Evening News revealing that the two Cornerhouse buildings (the main building and Screen 1 over the road) are likely to be torn down by the Council at some point in the future when the site is ‘redeveloped’. I’d already heard a rumour two years ago that Oxford Road station would one day be expanded to encompass this entire site, but my hopes of a reprieve had been quietly raised by the lovely Scandinavian-style bike park that’s since been erected outside Java coffee shop. I don’t want to lose that lovely bike park. I don’t want to lose Java either, or the magnificently squalid ‘Exorcist’ steps that barrel down towards Caley Street. And while it would be impossible to justify the existence of a stand-alone cinema screen with no managing body, it will be sad to see Screen 1 vanish too (there’s been a cinema there in one form or another for 103 years), but why the ‘corner house’ building itself, the old Shaw’s furniture store which has become so iconic?

From my frustrated doldrums I tweeted this:

…and this:

The ‘pain’ in question actually referred to my clavicle surgery, but fellow tweeters seemed to sense something like the pain of alienation, and a hearty discussion ensued. Investigations were made into the mysteriously disappeared Grade II listed status of the two Cornerhouse buildings (I know I didn’t dream it, they were listed) and passionate back-and-forths were had about City Council building projects and neglected bits of Manchester architecture. A few hours later one of the tweeters started a petition which at the time of writing has 700 signatures.

Reading back over the original Evening News story it was the word ‘hotel’ that was my main trigger. It’s safe to say that word is my red rag. I lived on Whitworth Street for six years and every day I would pass the abandoned development at the corner of Whitworth and Princess Streets with its contrived yuppie imagery and condescending tone of entitlement and its empty useless scar across the only gay neighbourhood in the city. The hotel and apartments intended to go there have never materialised. Why not build something on it? Legends, the place I partied endlessly in my Whitworth Street years, was bulldozed with meagre resistance in order to build a hotel that has yet to appear (as if its presence could salve the wound anyway). Clubbing in the city hasn’t recovered. London Road Fire Station continues to frustrate and upset anyone who passes by and gives a damn about architecture. Why not do something with that? The old BBC site is a permanent open car park and an uglier space than even the reviled Piccadilly Gardens. Why not build your office/h*t*l complex there?

Let’s be clear. This is not about nostalgia for times past; it’s about demanding an interesting and beautiful future without the need for a scorched earth policy. Nostalgia is a pejorative if it consists only of the endless romanticisation of a thing. When Legends was set for demolition I published a zine named after my clubnight ‘Drunk At Vogue’, featuring articles and artwork protesting the closure. I took a classic Mancunian Situationist approach and wrote, somewhat hysterically:

‘LEGENDS is the mental labyrinth of your DESIRE….!
LEGENDS is one of the ONLY gay/queer spaces that survives outside the GATED COMMUNITY OF GAY PRIDE….!
Mainstream media vouch for the Twisted Wheel as A HISTORICAL MONUMENT and we DOFF OUR CAPS to the dance floor pioneers and the faithful who still believe… But what about ME AND YOU…!
Every inch of queer Mancunian dance floor is a monument to NOW…!

This is what ‘nostalgia’ ought to be; a kind of anger, and an insistence in a future worth living in. Be ‘nostalgic’ for what you did yesterday, last week, this morning, so that you can keep on living and improving.

You may have heard about ‘The Storming’ already, again in the Manchester Evening News, where it was loosely conceived of as a ‘rave’ style event. This is only one part of the final picture. As we piece together the myriad components of ‘The Storming’, we actively draw on Manchester’s numerous identities, the complexity and diversity of its cultural past and present – clubs and music venues included – in order to celebrate, pay homage and energise the future; and yes, to party hard like Mancunians. As Sarah Perks from Cornerhouse says in the Evening News article:

Of course we all feel nostalgic about Cornerhouse closing its doors, but nostalgia only deals with the past and never with the future.’

‘The Storming’ will do things differently. The inspiration point for Humberto’s piece is ‘The Storming Of The Winter Palace’, a choreographed mass action that was staged in Petrograd in 1920 as a piece of ritual theatre which re-played the 1917 revolution in order to sanctify and celebrate its achievements. It wasn’t nostalgia, but a celebratory re-enactment of the recent victorious past that would invigorate a brilliant future for Russia; and the Council didn’t bulldoze the Winter Palace afterwards.

Friday, 8 August 2014

(Noise) Trouble at The Mill

After being lucky enough to be able to report nothing but good news so far, I didn't enjoy writing this statement for Islington MIll yesterday. Our cities are only going to get more developed and congested and loud. Art and music and innovation cannot be the fall guy in this situation. What is the solution?  

"Just as Islington Mill has taken a giant step forward with our successful Arts Council bid, we are simultaneously being restrained by a complaint about patron noise which has resulted in the Statutory Noise Nuisance notice under a 7 day deferral from Salford City Council. The suddenness of this development seems to negate the efforts we have previously made to work with the Council and residents at monitoring the impact of sound from our courtyard and main entrance. These efforts appear to have not made any tangible difference, hence our current urgent circumstances.
Our case is under review and any further complaints during the assessment period would seriously threaten our license, hence Dopplereffekt (Fri 8 August) will now take place at Antwerp Mansion and Cowbell presents Daniel Avery / A Love From Outer Space / Craig Bratley (Sat 9 August) will also be at Antwerp Mansion. Events like these feature the creators of some of our favourite music and we were proud to be able to host them in the City of Salford. However, the short term actions necessary to stage the events without jeopardising our license would mean we would not able to host them to the best of our ability. Artist and audience experience is something we value extremely highly and we don’t want to compromise it for any reason.
There is a high possibility that the outcome of our review will include some kind of revision to our 24-hour license. We are sensitive to the needs of our neighbours and keen to avoid animosity and upset, and to that end we have submitted an extensive proposal of short-term and longer-term methods to limit the impact of sound and outdoor activity on our neighbours. These include additional soundproof doors, on-site sound-monitoring engineers, exterior and interior structural alterations, new taxi arrangements, and many other suggestions. In short, in terms of what we are willing to do to keep our current license, we have shown ourselves willing to consider every possible avenue, and we hope the Council and residents will appreciate this.
However, with all of the discussions around regeneration and increased footfall to the Chapel Street area – which centres around the Mill and which underpinned our successful expansion bid – we are left in a state of some confusion as to how an independent arts venue with a 24-hour license is meant to operate under an ethos of experimentation and spontaneity with a series of caveats and compromises that effectively curtails our ability to operate the way that we do. Islington Mill is not just a bar or a club or a gig venue (but is a unique and dynamic mixed use space within which artists are encouraged to develop and expand their work and present new and stimulating and inspiring work to a wide public, demonstrating on a daily basis that people can do great things, that things are possible in Salford. The recognition from Arts Council England and Salford City Council, investment in our long-term future consistently acknowledges this.
We are working hard to find appropriate and workable solutions to these problems in the immediate as well as the long term and we will keep you all informed of developments. If any of our friends or followers have experience in this area or technical knowledge they would like to share with us, our doors are open, and our doors will remain open to all, so please continue to check out our programme of events that are still happening. Thank you."