A big thank you to Julian Isaacs, better known to some as Auntie Pus, who’s written about the impact of punk and poetry on his life.
The spires of Kings College School, Wimbledon issued only nightmares but I was dreaming of accolades to come, articulated in words of twisted cuisine: ‘Bang, Bang, King Edward Hasn’t Washed Today’, ‘(Wasn’t It A Hassle About The) Greengages’ and ‘(Paint My Brain With Toast ‘Cause I’m A) Marmalade Freak’. Robin Bibi, British bluesmeister and friend since KCS in 1970, still recalls my dipping an unjustly issued ‘conduct card’ in my school custard and eating it in front of a standing ovation from the whole Junior School. The card was yellow and so was the custard, and I’ve been called lots of things before and since though never yellow. The act of rebellion through consumption was probably a precursor to the addiction that was temperate on its heels.
Between came expulsion and blood on the classroom floor – literally and lots of it. And lots of acid with a young gents boutique employee named Christopher Millar, including one occasion when we saw the same word written in the sky simultaneously. Kindly don’t ask what it was – I’ve forgotten! It is said that acid blows the cobwebs away, similarly punk dispersed the cobwebs of progressive rock, the reason The Damned took the stage on their fortieth anniversary tour to the strains of ELP’s version of Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’. Soon after that time, Rat and I struck a £10 bet for the first one to get a record in the top ten, which he won in double quick time by changing his name to Rat Scabies and recording New Rose. I confess (doubly) that I have yet to settle that account – I never coughed up, nor have I as yet equalled the achievement.
Around that time, I had a band called The Wild Boys, it being then, before then, and still, always a way forward to name one’s band after a William Burroughs book, especially if the person forming the band is as much in thrall to the dictionary as to the doctor. Evidence of my wit being ever misinterpreted is that, having coined the slogan for the band of: ‘From gym slips to junk – let The Wild Boys corrupt your kids’, a woman with a well-to-do Kensington Gardens accent rang in response to my small ad in Time Out to ask if we were an organisation that looked after schoolchildren in the holidays. We weren’t but maybe we should have been. The hook line was a good ‘un though, and Rat plagiarised it for an NME feature interview a few years later.
It was my first manager, David Scott from Brighton, who donated to me the moniker of The Punk Balladeer, but I was a balladeer long before being a punk. Further, being balladeer, wordsmith and craftsman is ingrained in my soul; punk was a contemporary cultural movement that fitted the mood of the time and, coincidentally more than consequently, mine. I dipped my toe into it, feeling the ripple effects of the winnow piranhas who were the recently risen stars, rather as a modern day chiropody client might enjoy the fish treatment where their dead skin gets nibbled. And, I guess, my newly rasped soles were too tender for this world, and what should have been a transformation to lasting celebrity status became instead a transgression, a circular voyage of estrangement, absurdity, alterity. Having been round once, I’m now tacking back the other way. On every watch, as I unfurl the sails and raise them for the wind to take, they billow out in banners with new slogans. Last year, for example, following Trump’s election, we did a gig as Auntie Pus & The Wetbacks. This demonstrates the confrontational face of creativity, hardly a crime as Blake and Milton were both nothing if not confrontational, Milton’s eyes being so blind that he could see.
Johnny Rotten, on the other hand seems, then and now, to be more yob than revolutionary. It is ironic that one of punk’s most famous outlets was the clothes boutique named Seditionaries, as it was Blake who was actually arraigned for sedition, caught in possession of the zeitgeist, unlike Sid Vicious who was caught in possession of nothing more interesting nor individual than Class A drugs. It was another Syd, Mr. Barrett of Cambridge, for whom the spires also issued nightmares, who unknowingly mentored me. His song Baby Lemonade, with its line about ‘the clock they sent through a washing machine’ illustrates how, after fourteen years of what the twelve steppers call clean time, there is no water in my works (nor methadone, ha ha), despite a spin cycle that’s twenty times faster than a 78 record. My punk poetry heart ticks, tells tales, but tiptoes round no-one.
I heard the poet Paul Farley, who hails from Liverpool, read the other year, and at the Q and A session afterwards, I asked him if he saw himself as following in the footsteps of the ‘Mersey Sound’ poets – Adrian Henri, Brian Patten, and Farley’s Radio 4 colleague Roger McGough. Farley replied that he didn’t, as he considered them ‘true troubadours’. It is to such a status that I have always aspired. I used to antagonise Damned audiences by proclaiming: ‘I’ll say it out and I’ll say it loud – I’m Jewish, I’m queer, and I’m proud!’ Only the last of these is in fact true, but I will fight for the right to be any of them. When Johnny Moped declared: ‘When we have our baby, I’ll be quite happy just to wash and change its nappy’, it was a sincere affirmation of enduring love; Rotten on the other hand has all the sincerity of a politician. To quote a line from one of my favourite Damned songs, Plan 9, Channel 7, ‘Two hearts that beat as one’: my twin hearts were and still are a punk one and a poetry one. Music will save your soul, and has indeed saved mine, but it is the power of poetry that combusts the engine of articulation. Should you be unfortunate enough to be pretty vacant, it is to love, and the love of language that you should look to occupy that absence.