Skinhead Art

from Sounds, Jan 10, 1981

Cream of the cropped
Phil Sutcliffe and a bizarre encounter with ‘Renaissance skinhead’ Mick Furbank

Mick Furbank is a shock tactician. Former Piccadilly rent boy—gasp! Skinhead artist—never! Mimes buggery in public performance—disgraceful! Masturbates with a Doc Marten boot on stage—appalling! Says many skins are gay, just too hung-up to acknowledge it—the world turns upside down!

What he wants to tell us about is ‘Gangs. Uniforms. Pain.’ All the tender emotions suppressed, sexuality suppressed, violence expressed. His chosen approach is part and parcel of his skinhead persona. ‘No fuss. Mo mess. Pure impact.’ Very hard art.

Furbank is an over-reacher, the Renaissance skinhead. That is, he’ll try anything once. Like the way he came down from Leeds to London ‘inspired by the supposedly deterrent ‘Johnny Come Home’ TV docudrama to try his luck as a bisexual prostitute because he was “looking for something very different from what the average 17-year-old was doing.” He found it.

He tried to heal the scars of a few months working the meat rack by going home to respectably learn fashion design at college. Surprise—he didn’t fit. He put on a parade of punk art and set fire to it. This was said to be not quite what was required at Marks and Spencers.

He left and set out to discover how complete an artist he could become. Fast. He’s done stunning pen and ink drawing of skinheads making hard geometric shapes which somehow reveal inner pain (he uses them as slides in his show); amateurish photographs of artily posed people (he means to persist and improve); dire attempts at singing and plain the bass (he’s given that up); an autobiographical book just completed (publishers are not forming queues); writing and performing his show, ‘Lament of the Terraces.’ This last is the core of his work so far and I went to Leeds to see it.

The Meanwood pub. Sour name. An illusion. It’s in a polite suburb near Mick’s home. But in the upper room the matter in hand is laying souls bare.

Enter Mick carrying a candle in the dark. A spotlight picks him up and he commences to holler, really bawl at us like a crude Victorian barnstormer. His manner served to emphasise some of his quaintly ‘poetical’ diction. ‘My stalwart comrades,’ he called us, summoning us to the terraces like Henry the Fifth inviting us unto the breach one more. It was strange.

Beaten about the ears by raw vocal volume and stiff phraseology I completely lost track of what had been coherent in the written form I’d read beforehand, and I missed exactly the ‘pure impact’ he aims at his powerful ‘Birth’ poem—which on paper by sheer force of imagination links emergence from the womb and huddled up death under the boots of a gang as one social/moral process.

He dives out of the ranting monologue with a Bela Lugosi cackle. Hammer horror. Too much. Not that we weren’t transfixed; his energy output was astonishing and a magnet for the bug-eyed concentration of everyone. But is was rather like sitting in orderly rows while in front of you the fuse burns down on a stick of dynamite. ‘Dramatic,’ but meaningless.

As far as communication went that left it to mime and effects. Some of them worked well. Silently writhing in a black polythene bag and then sliding and crawling out he says a lot more than any of his tirades. He is the snakechild, the kid who is going to bit back.

The sequence of seeking and finding his role as a youth is compacted into a neat scene too. He tries on the costumes of every major cult of the last decade, hippie, mod, punk , and sensing their untruth hurls them away (at the audience of course). But he recognises the skinhead image as fitting his fate—to suffer and inflict pain.

Thence to the crescendo. A rough Yorkshire voice on tape delivers a British Movement speech. For a few moments things are almost dull. Then the same drivel is repeated word for word by a much posher voice with Big Ben chiming in the background. Matching the BM’s triumphant climax Furbank seduces and screws a rag-doll skinhead, then wanks with a Doc Marten.

Ecstasy? Except that for him this apotheosis is also degradation personally and, I think he means, politically. Awash with hang-ups and self-contempt he stabs at his image in a mirror then commits suicide by hurling himself through it, slashing himself to pieces.

At the Meanwood this tell flat because he was trying it outwith an emblematic ‘mirror’ of plastic rather than his usual spectacularly dodgy stunt with a real one. No matter how popped up your imagination is it’s almost impossible to see a sheet of red polythene as a threat to life and limb. So it was a rather soggy ending to such a fire-breathing assault on the senses.

I was a bit disappointed anyway because Mick had lost so much of what he has to say in the sound and fury of it all. As an actor he’s not exactly in the Gielgud class for subtlety. Even appearing as an archetype like this, The Skinhead rather than a specific person, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t express a realistic range of emotions rather than just yelling at us like a maniac.

And it has to be said that his claim to be reaching and expanding the minds of BM victim skinheads in Leeds was not borne out by the Meanwood audience or the comments of people who’d seen other performances. They were mostly a pretty artsy set, futurists and such, though the landlord’s restrictions on the door may have had something to do with this.

However, I have considerable respect for Furbank’s efforts to date. His is the valuable function of breaking a stereotype. Like Mensi, Doug Trendle and maybe the embryonic League of Labour Skins in their various ways, he is challenging the nor of how a skin should think and behave. In particular he’s cold-shouldering the violently complacent aggro boys by making connections between fascist politics, hung-up sex and, recently in his drawings, Zen Buddhist spirituality. (this of the priests’ shaven heads, uniforms, the martial arts). Ideas-a-go-go for people who’ve been told they’re thick so often their choice became glory in it or surrender.

For this he gets enough positive reaction to keep in going—letters, conversations on the street and in pubs. There have also been heavy-breathing phone calls, bricks through his windows and one show in a church hall invaded and wrecked by a skinhead gang. “I cope with it by ignoring it,” he told me before the show. “It has toned down lately because people have come to realise that I’m neutral territory.

The Meanwood saw the twenty-first performance of “Lament of the Terraces’ and one of the last probably. In February Mick breaks more new ground for skinheads by entering a Buddhist monastery for a month.

Partly it’s a break from Leeds, which he loathes (he hunkers after the End End of London where he spent his childhood). Partly it’s to immerse himself in Zen, contemplate the creative and destructive aspects of ego and thereby get a clearer view of the difficulties he has squaring the ‘gang uniform’ appeal of being a skinhead with his belief that it can release the individual too (and so cut out the ‘pain’?).

As we left the Meanwood, Mick was locked in a fond embrace with a boyfriend. This shock tactician has ‘come out’ all right and he’s not likely to be hiding away for long. To be continued I’m sure.


2 thoughts on “Skinhead Art

  1. Pingback: We’re Two Years Old! | standupandspit

  2. Pingback: Mick Furbank Gay Skins Shock | standupandspit

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