I noticed on Twitter it’s “National Poetry Day” and that always brings back memories of one of my most infamous performances. It was on Thursday October 7th 1999, that year’s NPD so one could say it happened 20 years ago today though technically it didn’t… anyway…
1999 was an amazing year as I’d made a major name for myself on the Liverpool poetry and music open floor circuit. Unfortunately, I got myself embroiled within Liverpool’s Dead Good Poets organisation. This is not the time nor place to go into the dramas that went on with them, but essentially over time, myself and two fellow poets Liam Brayd and Kieron Deveney failed to see eye to eye with them. Liam had come up with the idea of hosting a poetry festival. The DGP’s “approved” the idea and said they’d give it backing. A committee was formed featuring myself, Liam and Kieron but I dropped out within days for reasons I can’t remember. In a nutshell, Liam and Kieron did all the legwork and organising save for one show – the National Poetry Day event which was to be hosted in the Bluecoat Gallery which would be the DGP’s contribution. They booked John Cooper Clarke for the show and a vote was held on the 6 local poets who would support him. I was not too thrilled to be one of the performers to be voted to do it but… a gig is a gig and there was also talk that we would get paid for it.
Back in 2001 or 2002, a book was published called “Gladsongs and Gatherings” documenting Liverpool’s poetry scene. I didn’t discover the book until 2013 and was stunned to read it as it contained a lengthy piece by fellow poet David Bateman documenting the Dead Good Poets saga during 1997 to 2000. I was very surprised to find myself talked about a little in his piece but I took great objection to various facts he got wrong and his intimation that nobody was actively keeping an archive of what was going on when he knew all along that I was recording most of the shows, plus I was writing a journal which documented everything as it happened. I was unhappy he never bothered to contact or consult me as I would had corrected the facts he got wrong. However, his version of what went on doesn’t tally with mine at all, especially in relation to the poetry festival as he shows bias for the Dead Good Poets and sets me, Liam and Kieron up as rebellious villains as in the wake of the poetry festival, Liam, Kieron and myself all withdrew from the DGP’s as they claimed they had organised the whole festival when the reality was it was Liam and Kieron who had done everything except set up the Bluecoat Gallery affair.
I mention all this to set some context. The Bluecoat gig and Cooper Clarke were booked in April or May. By September, things were falling apart and the DGP’s were embarrassed when Cooper Clarke suddenly pulled out of the gig claiming he had been double booked so Lemn Sissay was booked to replace him. By then, I’d had enough of the DGP’s and it was becoming common knowledge around Liverpool that I was not gonna turn up for the gig as I wanted no involvement with it.
Enter Hayley Blackledge who had recently become my neighbour.
A week before the show, Hayley came into my bedsit with an evil grin on her face, sat down and said “You know, I think you should do that Bluecoat gig” and she outlined some ideas. She knew I was mad enough to go along with it so, the pair of us pieced together a 10 minute set to honour the gig. Let’s just say we put together something that audience weren’t expecting and would never forget. Hayley was gonna be my partner in crime for the performance and I give her full credit as this wasn’t a Baz performance, but a Baz and Hayley one.
The day of the gig was a long dramatic one. Hayley had been reported as a “missing child” (she was 21!) by her Mum as she’d not contacted her in a week or two and the police turned up to see if she was OK whilst we were out in the city centre buying some props for the performance. To cut a long story short we finally arrived at the Bluecoat very late, just in time for the intermission and there were instant problems. The compere Dinesh Allirajah noticed I had a toy gun and demanded to know what I was doing. I told him it was a prop and we had a polite argument as he told me he would have to “warn” the audience about it. I argued that wasn’t necessary as I regularly used silly props and 90% of the audience knew me so why spoil the surprise? He was having none of it. This kind of madness was partly why I was sick of the DGP’s and me and Hayley looked at each other, rolling our eyes unhappy with this. Still, Dinesh didn’t know that Hayley also had a gun!
It was a bit of a do to say the least. Candlelit, wine, the whole works. It all felt rather pretentious and there was about 30 in attendence. Liam was pleasantly surprised to see I’d turned up after all and I got the feeling he wasn’t too pleased with the event but I assured him we had something special prepared and he rubbed his hands and said “I can’t wait!”
So, the show resumed. I had my tape recorder running. Unknown to me it malfunctioned so the recording I got only captured a mono signal in one channel instead of the full widescreen stereo I usually got. Despite that, this recording is one of my most prized items in the entire tape archive. I gave my camera to Liam so we had a few photos captured as well – and no, I took no photos of any of the other performers. Dinesh did a lengthy intro, reading some spiel I’d sent him in advance then to my dismay announced “I will warn you that Baz has some pyrotechnics prepared… I felt I should warn you about that” and finally, all heads turned to me.
Out came my Poundland toy machine gun, aimed it at the audience, squeezed the trigger and the gun broke failing to make the rat a tat sound I wanted. Awkward silence and embarrassment, so I had Hayley pass me her gun which was a basic cap gun, fired a couple of shots then screamed “DON’T FUCKING PATRONISE ME YOU CREEP!” and spent the first minute of the set ranting a load of abusive profanities. No, none of it rhymed… I skulked amongst the audience as I ranted and the feeling of discomfort in that chamber was profound. Little did they know.
There was no applause as I climbed on to the stage to take a seat to begin the next piece. “This next piece is called… READ MY MIND!”
“Read My Mind” was 100% Hayley’s piece. I simply sat there on the stage for one minute saying absolutely nothing, glaring at the audience. The audience quickly realised what was going on but following the profane laden piece, they were unnerved and quietly began saying odd remarks. The first discernible one came from poet Beryl Philips who uttered “He’s at it again!” Another male voice is heard with “is this a long poem?” David Bateman proffered “yer dirty bugger!” It was a PRICELESS moment. Though it wasn’t quite Hayley’s intent, what struck me was the audience’s fear… fear as to wondering what the hell was going on and of silence as they themselves became the performers. The tension… my God, THE TENSION! I remember it so well and you can even sense it from the recording. I was half shitting myself… though I was doing nothing, it felt incredibly draining and intense and in many ways it was perhaps the bravest and most daring thing I’d ever done onstage. Hayley was stood beside the stage carefully with an eye on my watch… precisely one minute after the piece began she then walked onto the stage clutching a script and went “HELLO!” in a garish voice at which point I jumped into life and we went into a comedy script we had written.
The piece was again pretty much all Hayley as she had talked to me about fresher students and how clueless and dumb they are when they first arrive in a new place and of their general stuck up attitudes. She had recently finished University and knew of such people. I had her utter a load of lines onto tape, I transcribed it then wrote in lines of my own so it became a dialogue between two freshers newly arrived in Liverpool. It got very silly in places but generally we were a pair of stuck up middle class cretins obsessed with money showing zero respect for Liverpool “It’s full of them Scousers!” I grumble at one point as we dismissed The Beatles and name dropped the trendy places where all the students hung out. My character lived in Toxteth prompting an “Ooh, it’s nice round there!” from Hayley. It climaxed with Hayley asking if I had a rich aunt… then revealing she had just murdered hers, inherited all her money and I replied “That’s cool innit?” and the pair of us went “YEAH!” in unison.
That got the first round of applause. This was certainly one bizarre experience as we had one final piece and so far we’d done nothing remotely poetical. Hayley sat down and began playing gentle finger pickings on her guitar. This was a piece we’d written a month earlier – the first thing we wrote together – called “Life Begins At Lime Street” which was essentially a love note to Liverpool. We had performed it on 14th September at another event and Kieron had loved it. It was very gentle and halfway through, I held up photos of various local characters who I knew… a certain poet, a rogue called John Meakin raised a laugh from Beryl! It was a reward for the audience’s patience and the only poetical thing we did in our ten minute spot. It got a great round of applause and as I walked off, Liam ran over, shook my hand, grinned and said “that was brilliant!”
I had to get out of that room immediately to try and recover. Hayley and I stood together discussing the performance when another poet mate of mine Degsy Jones dashed over and he too shook my hand telling us “that was fucking amazing” and said he couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed. I quickly made it known to him he should be thanking Hayley. He’d only met her briefly before then and I felt it was absolutely right that Hayley got full credit and acclaim as well for had it not been for her and her ideas, this performance would never had happened.
Hayley and I looked in on Lemn Sissay’s set. He was blathering on about Bob Marley and we were instantly bored, went outside and had some ciggies whilst we waited for the show to end and meet up with some pals for an after show drink in the Jacaranda. When the audience exited, I had never seen so many looking so angry and miserable as some had taken great offence at some of the stuff Sissay had said in his set. Given he has since received an honour from the Queen, I’m not going to reveal what caused offence but I agreed with my pals with what they were saying.
The following night was even more dramatic as the whole tensions involving the Dead Good Poets exploded during a show at the Picket and was for me, the final insult that had me making the decision to resign from the DGP’s at the end of the year. That’s another story for another time.
So, this Bluecoat Gallery performance was and remains the only performance I did in the name of “National Poetry Day” and I’m real proud of it as for that short time the spotlight was on me and Hayley, we dared to take a big chance and poked at the pomposity of the event and the Dead Good Poets. I’m also proud of the fact that we did something genuinely DIFFERENT in the name of performance art in a prestigious venue which had hosted an earlier Yoko Ono performance and was the first gallery to ever display the works of Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart!
And you know what? See that Russian Army Jacket in the photos? I’ve STILL got that… maybe one day it might make a reappearance…