Friday, 21 April 2017

Songs That Are Sung in the Night - The Poetry of Marc Almond

Although famous as a singer, songwriter and musician, Marc Almond is less known for his poetry, which features a kaleidoscope of scenarios and locations, together with a highly diverse cast of characters, from glamorous movie stars to burnt out strippers, somnambulists to drag queens, from Venus on a silver stage to the decadence and dreams of a lonely go-go dancer.

Lately I’ve been having dreams,
Strange kind of dreams,
Beautiful dreams
In the deep night

That he has shared some of these dreams through music has enriched popular culture for over thirty years; that he has also done so through poetry strikes some as surprising. One reason is the comparative slimness of his literary output – he has published few collections, the first via a now nonexistent publishing house. Those familiar with the records may notice similarities – like Leonard Cohen, Marc Almond has incorporated some poems, such as several in his first collection The Angel of Death in the Adonis Lounge, and his 1999 compendium Beautiful Twisted Night, into song lyrics, and vice-versa. Influenced by his life experiences, and by poets such as Baudelaire and Verlaine, some of whose verse he has set to music and performed on record, his poems often have a musical and rhythmic quality, and enchant the reader like infectious songs, full as they are of a very human vulnerability, an acknowledgment of pain and loss, and the need for love:

Searching eyes
And lonely faces
Looking for those soft embraces,
Needing just another moment’s understanding.

Marc Almond was born in Southport on the Lancashire coast, a place he remembers in his autobiography Tainted Life for its ragged tideline of bones and shells , the gaudy seafront and its rows of once-resplendent houses. It is a town, he writes, like Miss Havisham and her wedding dress, awash with a faded splendour that imbues it with a slightly seedy air of decayed decadence. He tells us how Southport remains within him, as the places that we come from always do, and anyone familiar with his work might easily appreciate the prevalence, however subtle, of this decadence and wistful beauty in his poetry and songs.
After an adolescence spent between Southport and West Yorkshire Almond, paying his way behind the bar of the Leeds Playhouse, moved to study Art at the Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Metropolitan University), where he was tutored by, among others, the artist, writer and cultural commentator Jeff Nuttall. Living not far from where Nuttall at times resided in the Calder Valley, I sometimes speak to those who knew him, and recently heard the raconteur described by a friend who taught with him in Leeds as “the last great Renaissance Man.”Given Nuttall’s counter-cultural status, it is not surprising that Marc Almond names him “the strongest influence on me,” at that point, and “a milestone in my learning.” Encouraging students to produce “extreme, shocking, visceral and disturbing” art, he must have been an enlivening influence on a young artist beginning to express himself, and it is no wonder that in those student days the future pop star would pen poetry about

A thousand pretty things
That’d make you sick,
Human ashtrays trying to turn a trick.

Arriving in the city, Almond lived in Chapeltown, once a leafy village that by the early 20th Century had become a major Jewish area. Coming from Leeds, and having through the years spent many stretches working at the library until earlier this year, I know the area well, and today it is a district blighted by problems such as burglary, heroin and inter-racial tensions – the scene of rioting at various points in the last thirty years. Originally a genteel suburb, its large houses were converted into rented dwellings in the early 20th Century and were popular with Jewish refugees; the area housed West Indian families in the 50’s and 60’s, who opened up their homes as unlicensed party venues, and was for the most part a fairly relaxed place, earning a reputation for licentiousness.   When Almond lodged there, it still hosted a red-light area, and a grey and sooty place, always damp, as he recalled in 1996, brightened only by shops selling glittering saris, scarves and brightly coloured Indian sweets. The brightness was obscured when a particular darkness descended over Chapeltown in the winter of 1976. It was the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, and a mood of insidious disquiet hung in the air…Two prostitutes had been murdered near Spencer Place, and now the remaining girls had fear on their faces as they walked the streets…at night Leeds turned into a ghost town. Against this fearful backdrop, then, his poetry of the period with its Businessman smell / Found in one-night hotels, its rent-boys and its Faceless figures / Trying to keep their pride assumes an air of pathos, of compassion, and of tragedy. As points out, the murderer might be anyone – someone known to us. All you ever talked about, or heard of, was the Ripper…Each night as I walked back from college I felt uneasy, nervous at the sound of footsteps behind me, and relieved when I reached the sanctuary of my basement flat. It was at this time that the poem Twilights and Lowlifes was composed, its addressee longing to Kneel down and shut your eyes / In the sanctuary, to be finally out of danger and out of sight.
A poem in Almond’s first collection – and appearing on an early solo album – recalls his flat, where he would sometimes hear prostitutes heading up and down the stairs. The following segment combines a stark realism with a nod to student bohemianism, before a hefty thud of Northern bathos:

All night the girls would clump
In heavy platform shoes
I painted all the walls flamenco orange,
One window in the doorframe
and the drains were always blocked.

The poetry of those days was for the most part rooted to the poet’s Northern origins, staging sub-cultural sensuality within a frame of “kitchen sink” simplicity:

My girlfriend’s pregnant                 Inside
Bashed a cop                                   Robbed a bank
Wanted                                          My girl
Get married                                   Girl
Girlfriend                                       I’m twenty-one
My girlfriend

The sense of feeling trapped, the fear of boredom and conformity raged against in early songs like Frustration and Babes in Consumerland, coupled with a contradictory urge for security, is delivered in cold, hard slabs of almost nihilistic sadness:

Twilights and lowlifes
Hiding from the daylight,
Trying to find
The dream inside,
Trying to find
The peace of mind,
Trying to find a car
And a holiday.
Trying to find a lover,
Trying to find a mother,
Who, it doesn’t matter –
One or the other.

But the biography also reveals despite it all, I personally never felt happier than during the time I stayed there, and as the orange bedroom walls suggest, his general state of mind was more colourful than grim, especially as the heady days of art school saw him progress to one-man shows and films. Inspired by directors such as Tod Browning and Fellini, films like Cabaret and The Damned, the art of Jean Cocteau, and the novels of John Rechy, Marc fired his energies into many artistic genres, giving rise to such strangely beautiful poetry as Fuchshia Flamenco, written in 1979, and describing an amorous frenzy between a wide-eyed flamenco dancer and the tender fandango of two olive-skinned boys . The images merge in a dazzling blur of cobras, broken Spanish dolls, castanets and Broadway tap rhythms, swinging from the sinisterly surreal, as two fuchsia scorpions advance, retreat and advance again, circling, to bizarre personification, as flamenco guitar works up an orgasm and cries out as crescendo subsides. The poem paints mend-bending pictures, yet despite his early interest in hallucinogens, Almond’s poetry from that time on seems to me not so much psychedelic as experimental, partly the stuff of cabaret and the 1930’s avant-garde. By turns gritty, surreal and confessional, it treads a fine trapeze between the macabre: A befouled raven / That sweeps and weeps / its way / Through my daylight nightmares (Star), the ugly: And this town is a pot-pourri of disease: / You can smell the herpes / From the scum-fucking fucks / That hand around the same / Suckers each midnight (Catch a Fallen Star), and the beautiful: He is as rich as hashish / Exotic and brown, / Dark as the earth, / Damp as the soil / Erotic and sweet, / Opiate, healer (The Angel of Death in the Adonis Lounge)

By the time the debut book appeared, its author had enjoyed more than half a decade of musical success. A more market-oriented artist might have produced a safe or straightforward book, or at least have splashed it in the public eye by extensive promotion. But The Angel of Death in the Adonis Lounge is not a typical suite of poems, either by the standards of pop musicians or of mainstream poets. Published in March 1988 by the Gay Men’s Press (two months before the Thatcher government prevented local authorities publishing material “promoting” – homosexuality), the book presents provocative, sensual, at times humorous poetry. Its author tells us the poems were written between the years 1980-87. They are explorations and observations , they part document my ever changing attitudes. The opening poem, Lonely, Lonely, begins Send me blue dahlias, and goes on to enticingly suggest:

Drifter in dreamland
Naked in your sorrow,
There’s danger on lips
In deep velvet of night

One sequence appears to recall an incident when, as a child, Almond, who has written of how he is drawn to the plight of animals, witnessed, after climbing over a wall, a calf being shot in the head to be turned into meat. The image remained with him, and in this first book he writes:

From the womb
Wet and anointed,
Slippery as a calf, half-born,
Hanging from the quivering guts:
(Not anticipating)
Impending misery.
To the slaughterhouse.

There is a sense of foreboding, such as in My Fateful Love, which may well draw its anxiety from the threat of AIDS that, like the fear of the Ripper earlier in the decade, had by 1988 overshadowed much of the country – the world, in fact – and was exploited by homophobic hate-mongers from the spheres of religion, politics and the press:

Trouble waits on near horizons.
Eyes crackling like a storm,
Send me down a bolt of thunder
To keep me warm:
The fingers of some ghastly hand
To grab me at the gate,
To test me of my faith in love
My love of faith.
My fateful love.

Elsewhere, love its self is presented as something that cannot be trusted:

And this precious jewel
I could give to you
Colour me red
When I’m feeling blue.
The colour of a kiss
In a young girl’s dream
The mark of the guillotine.

The tender sadness with which Almond writes captures something of the 1980’s, when for all the brash materialism, another Britain of unemployment, homophobia and division was reflected by such poetry as:

Tenements brooding….

Somewhere a battered radio
Croons a song of yesteryear,
Songs that only go to fuel
My bile-embittered heartaches.

The poem thus combines declinism with a sense of anger for the woes of former days, perhaps not yet expired, an idea enunciated even more firmly as:

Air eddies, like some undulating current
Wanting and wanting to pull me down
Pulsing full of memories that
Loiter round to meet me.

But later in the book, the decade is given lighter treatment; we see the thrills and spills of legendary nights out.   Almond has recalled the 80’s as times of fun and “living for the day” (to quote an early title), and rising above the “dark cloud” of Thatcherism by clinging to the silver lining of the flamboyant New Romantic scene, and once he had moved to London, the cutting-edge, ecstasy-fuelled hedonism of its clubland. Syph Gun and Taxi Cabs is a wry, grinning poem laden with innuendo and club references, crackling with youthful excitement:

On floors of dust we
And went.
The hot euphoria,
Heaven sent.
And how we lived those times
Of riot

while other pieces celebrate exotic foreign scenes, like the fruitful valleys of California. Saint Judy (which again appears elsewhere as a song) is laced with sad humour: And if I die before I wake up / I pray the Lord don’t smudge my make-up. Described by its writer as a hymn to destructive divas and drag queens, Saint Judy, which places its heroine a million miles from the magic of The Wizard of Oz, is truly empathetic, as behind the gloss and glamour of the movies, the tormented child-star is depicted in exploited pain and suffering:

Too many of my skeletons
In other people’s closets
Too many people taking
Without leaving deposits
Too many people bringing me down

The interplay around sexuality and language (“pun” seems too casual for writing so subtly clever) is impressive, and painful. How easy it would be to cast such a character in clumsy melodrama, to drench the writing in cliché. Yet this makes the reader think, and think again – Sometimes I feel like a moral-less child resonates like music on the brain, and is somehow deeply sad. The poem unites two factors in its author’s artistic motivations: glamour, and darkness. In the introduction to Beautiful Twisted Night, he tells of a twilight world of neon and secrets, of secret dreams and deals, of different morals and different codes. His skill as a writer enables him to peer into that world, to document some of its secrets, where the hustler is hero and the loser is saint, where the ugly is beautiful and the beautiful more beautiful, in the gutter where gold is found. His first collection is a glimpse into this world, and shines a torch on the lives that go on unnoticed, overlooked and under-loved, beyond the hype and heartlessness of the everyday mainstream:

Songs That Are Sung in the Night

Songs that are sung
in the night
are pitiful songs:
Themes for the lonely sleepless.
Woes to the blue of the heart
Songs that are sung
in the dark
Are haunted moans
For a hand in motion,
A mysterious song
For someone out there
in the dark.
My room turns on me,
Walls creep to eat me,
My bed sucks me,
Vented, and shallow,
Soured perspiration
Turns out to be made by me.

It would be more than ten years before The Angel of Death was followed, in the form of both poetry and prose, with a retrospective of lyrics thrown in. By now, having travelled the globe with albums bathed in international flavours, Almond was writing about New York, Barcelona and Paris as old friends (he would later record an album with lyrics translated from poems by Jean Genet, Eric Stenbok, Rimbaud, Gerard de Nerval, JeanCocteau and more), and brilliantly bringing Russia to life in his poem about St Petersburg from 1992. Galina Dances portrays a city struggling to survive, as after years of upheaval the country just about pulls through:

City of decaying dreams,
Where under a pink sky,
Gold spires gleam,
Glitter like
A dying fire,
Daring angels to fly higher,
Where the Czar
took a trip,
Hallucinogenic sinking ship
Of sad canals
And endless streets,
Dark canyons
Where young lovers meet.

Still with an eye for the surreal, he conjuors up the Gaudi-esque:

Striking drain slime,
Fluttering boys,
Sea rot and swollen sun;
Skull-faced moon,
fish ribbed, Gothic noon
The barriochino seethes

 And celebrates tattoos:

Detailed scrolls of winding ink
Like tendrils round a tree,
Declarations, observations,
Gleaming mysteries.

A long-time fan of body-art, Almond has many tattoos, and in Pushin’ Ink, he weaves a glamorous web:

A curl around a nipple,
A spear through a shoulder blade,
Two pulsing hearts, a diving swallow,
Anchors, ace of spades.
Needle-threaded reminders
Bravura crafted on the flesh,
A serpent in the crevices,
Writhing where its wet.
Paintings for his lifetime,
Decorations for parade,
A carpet for the Devil,
Coloured from the shades
Of hell.

Released in 2001, with a cd of the author reading his poems, The End Of New York sees Almond in nostalgic mood. His music had long contained elements of European (especially Spanish) sounds, along with the influence of American dance, and now, fresh from the success of two recent albums, and embarking on a direction which would further extend his already cosmopolitan sound to take in Russian songs and instruments, he delivered a collection anchored in the nightlife of New York, taking in visits to Puerto Rican clubs, the Gaiety Theatre, and The Eros on Eight Avenue- a beacon to lovers of male erotic dancing. Almond is reflective and matter-of-fact, non-judgmentally inviting us into a world of gangsters, hustlers and dealers, while all the while seeming to find the beauty among them:

Scintillating powdered crystal,
Diamente deity,
Diva Anita…

Each evening she rises
From a pile of star-spangled clutter…

Her night domain she rules
(Tongues hush),
That Crimson Diva comes.
What a woman!

Alternating early songs with newly written poems, The End Of New York is a burst of joy and sorrow, as Almond regrets the new, corporate “Disneyland” the city has by that time, he feels, largely become – in much the same way he would write of the white-washing of London’s West End a decade or so later, when famous – and infamous – places were replaced by mass-market fast-food chains:

The end of New York came on a day
That was as grey as the hair
Of the mayor of New York.
He turned off the speakers,
Turned up the lights
And the corners shone white…

No more dancing,
No more drinking…

We feel both irritated by, and sorry for, the taxi driver who bores with droning stories about having driven Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson and Judy Garland, and who in his own way also laments the passing of the old into the new – They don’t make ’ em like that, not no more. – and slip easily into the comfort of an oily black limousine, / the rain melting the windows. These poems are a world away from the wintry backstreets of Leeds, where we first found Almond nervously writing through his nights in student bed-sits. And yet, the same vein of vulnerability, of admiration for the lost, the lonely and the outsiders of life, shines through. The same idealistic clubber who, living for the moment, dances in a blur of broken neon among housewives, troubadours and a ruined superstar in the elegiac Suicide Saloon is not far removed from the wide-eyed youngster looking for those soft embraces among the back-to-backs and Nineteenth Century terraces of Chapeltown, or indeed the young boy dreaming of a life of glamour and excitement among the sandy hills and lonely seafronts of the Lancashire coast.

Many thanks to Lucy Tucker of MA Management, and to David Caddy of Tears in the Fence for permission to re-publish - this essay first appeared in the Notes section of the Tears in the Fence website,

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