Welcome to February! It’s feeling tentatively spring-like here in South Yorkshire today. The snow of the early week has melted and my crocus shoots are poking through the earth. All of this has brought with it s small tingle of optimism and, it is in this spirit I welcome tonight’s guest to the blog for Friday Night Drinks, poet… Grae J. Wall.
Welcome to the blog, Grae. Thank you for joining me for drinks this evening. First things first, what are you drinking?
Given the auspicious occasion it will have to be a fine Normandy Calvados – santé.
If we weren’t here in my virtual bar tonight, but were meeting in real life, where would you be taking me for a night out?
We’d have to also step back in time a couple of years as it’s sadly no longer there, but let’s head to Pastis Bar in Barcelona. It’s a tiny bar covered in weird and wonderful paintings and photos pertaining to its origin as a bar for French sailors arriving in Port. The owner Angel is an enigmatic character who rarely smiles – one evening we set ourselves the challenge of eliciting a grin – a tough task but we got there in the end. The soundtrack is always Piaf, Brel or Aznavour, but also each night someone will take to what must literally be the smallest stage in the world – just room for one stool and a microphone. I have joyously performed there several times but perhaps my favourite evening there was when an accomplished Tango guitarist took to the stage. Part way through the evening a couple at the bar suddenly stood up and somehow in the limited space danced a suave passionate tango to the utter delight of all present. One of my favourite drinking spots on the planet – I think you’ll like it!
If you could invite two famous people, one male and one female, alive or dead, along on our night out, who would we be drinking with?
Well I think Patti Smith for sure. I’ve always wanted to go drinking with Patti as she’s both a huge inspiration and a sterling raconteur. There’s so much I’d love to discuss – poetry, music, art and photography of course but also humanist politics and great coffee. We’d obviously talk about Jim Morrison and Arthur Rimbaud, CBGB’S and the beats. Perhaps we could even persuade her to take to that tiny stage for an impromptu reading of Piss Factory.
Shall we go with Leonard Cohen as our other guest? I love that despite all his writing and performing he somehow retained a certain air of mystery in life – perhaps one or two snippets might be revealed. From those days of trying to be an author on Hydra to accidentally becoming one of the finest poets and songwriters of his generation. That amazing return – having retired and then discovered himself to be in a dire financial situation – coming back with such panache and gusto. I love the poetry he wrote from his Mount Baldy retreat – seemingly wrestling and failing at becoming a good Buddhist – I can relate. Such a dark wit would be compelling company for sure – and of course another potential floor spot for the evening.
Can you imagine being present for that once only Patti and Leonard duet!
Wouldn’t that be an evening! So, now we’re settled, tell me what you are up to at the moment. How and why did you start it and where do you want it to go?
Well I have recently published a book of my poems (along with a few photos) – The Sound of Revolution. It was one of the positives to come out of the strange year that was 2020. Having been furloughed from my job as an Arts facilitator in March I was writing quite a lot but also found myself being asked to read and contribute to a variety of on-line festivals and events which I really enjoyed. I also decamped to my wife’s little summerhouse at the bottom of the garden and set about recording a little album mixing up poems and songs – mouseclubvirusblues – which I released on Bandcamp. Following that I did a little interview with Andy N for his Spoken Label podcast and he asked if I was planning to publish a new book and that set me thinking that perhaps I should. The last little book I put together was probably 10 years ago now and was a very slim and limited edition so I figured it was about time. I have had a few individual poems published in various places and of course regularly post to The Poetry Underground – a Facebook group that I facilitate – but this just felt like the right moment to put together something a bit more substantial. Being furloughed allowed me the time to put it together (with the help of my daughter Emelia). For me live (or even virtually live) performance is hugely important, whether that be straight poetry gigs or mixing up poetry and music and it’s really nice to have that product that I feel proud of that I can offer to folks at the end of the show. Moving forward it’s just getting back to performing, touring and playing crazy little festivals – it was tough being a troubadour in 2020 and I’m relishing being able to re-engage with that soul.
What has been your proudest moment since you started writing and what has been your biggest challenge?
I have been asked to contribute to or perform poems at several Environmental events and publications including Extinction Rebellion. Being able to engage people on such an important platform is a real honour. It’s something my mum used to do – writing poems on local issues and submitting them to the local press – and I have a feeling she’d approve. I have had folks contacting me and thanking me for some of these posts and appearances which is very sweet. Similarly I have performed at events around issues of mental health and again received some very positive responses which have been gratifying.
My biggest challenge I guess was returning from my own worst moments of ill mental health, continuing to write, record, perform and tour – not allowing those darker impulses to dictate the person you are. Accepting those demons and channeling them creatively has actually proved a strength and inspiration.
What is the one big thing you’d like to achieve in your chosen arena? Be as ambitious as you like, its just us talking after all!
I’m not even sure I really know what that is – it’s not something I ponder on much. Maybe just being given Turbine Hall at Tate Modern to do with as I wish for some huge anarchic poetry, lomography and music installation. I guess the world tour would be nice too – but for now the Turbine Hall will suffice.
What are have planned that you are really excited about?
It hasn’t been a great year for being able to make plans but I’m just excited at being able to perform in front of real audiences again. I can’t wait to get back on the road for new adventures. In my arts worker post we had a great project planned for 2020 – Odetoberfest – a month long celebration of poetry and spoken word. We had John Hegley booked and lots of great events planned and of course we had to cancel the whole thing which was a big disappointment so maybe we can return to that plan. I’m excited about collaborating again – working with my musical compadres but also just mixing things up more – refusing to be pigeonholed or sitting in a particular box – life’s too short.
I love to travel, and I’m currently drawing up a bucket list of things I’d like to do in the future. Where is your favourite place that you’ve been and what do you have at the top of your bucket list?
I’ve been so lucky to be able to tour a lot on the continent – especially Germany, France and Catalunya and I have favourite little corners of each. We got married though in Las Vegas and drove over to San Francisco stopping off in Bakersfield. That was a great road trip and I loved each part of it – channeling Hunter S. Thompson, Merle Haggard and Jack Kerouac. The morning of the wedding I went for a drive down the strip and found a doo wop station on the radio – one of the coolest moments in my life, just cruising through this mad town wearing a sharp suit singing along to Sam Cooke and The Coasters. Along with the cool and the crazy it was a real eye opener discovering Americas’s underbelly – the extreme poverty and this nation of the lost and lonely that you don’t really see in the movies. We thought we were gonna die in Bakersfield when a car slowed and the window came down but actually we just got egged. In San Francisco I had the finest breakfast of my life – pancakes with blueberries and maple syrup – perfect.
I’d like to return to the States but this time it would be a road trip to take in New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis, maybe Detroit too. I love country music, the blues, jazz, soul and rock ‘n’ roll so it would be something of a spiritual pilgrimage – like coming home. I want to do the Grand Ole Opry, Graceland and find those devilish cross roads, though my soul is emphatically not for sale. Say a prayer on the street Johnny Thunders died, drink hard bourbon on Beale Street and maybe even find a breakfast to rival San Francisco.
You’ve picked some of my favourite places there. Love the madness of Vegas. We did the Nashville- Memphis- New Orleans road trip about five years ago and it was possibly my favourite trip ever. All great cities. I’m definitely going to go back to Nashville but swing up to Pigeon Forge & pay homage to the great Dolly Parton next time. Tell me one interesting/surprising/secret fact about yourself.
I was the first and last Arts Council of England Contemporary and Community Music Officer. I was offered more drugs in that role than I ever have as a gigging poet and musician!
Books are my big passion and central to my blog and I’m always looking for recommendations. What one book would you give me and recommend as a ‘must-read’?
Wow – just one that’s tough! I’ll give a fleeting mention to Danny Sugerrman’s No One Here Gets Out Alive (Jim Morrison biography) which I genuinely have recommended to a few people over the years as being the finest rock ‘n’ roll biog of all time.
The book I’ll go with though is Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine. I think it’s one of the rawest and most honest autobiographies I have ever read (along with Patti’s Just Kids – better mention that as she’s here with us!). As a journey of self-discovery, life struggle and rebirth it’s beautifully written and genuinely compelling. From those stumbling, awkward, awakening days of punk through serious illness to Hastings housewife. Viv writes so naturally and seemingly without filter offering a very personal and sometimes surprising insight in to some much covered characters including The Pistols and The Clash. What followed those years though is no less dramatic or intriguing, cancer, IVF, a grown-up job and the sad breakdown of her marriage at times find you almost shouting ‘too much information’ – but like an ambulance chaser you somehow just can’t look away. Having read and loved the book I went along to Q&A and signing session at a record Shop in Letchworth and found her to be as thoughtful, funny, self-depreciating and candid as her writing would imply. As a debut book it is really quite astoundingly accomplished and whether you are a Slits fan or not I think anyone would find the telling of her story touching and accessible. When after 25 years she decides to go and perform at an open mic night the self doubt and first night nerves rekindled you are feeling each anxious moment with her and long to offer some words of reassurance – ‘it’s OK Viv – you’ll be fine’!
In 1975, Viv Albertine was obsessed with music but it never occurred to her she could be in a band as she couldn’t play an instrument and she’d never seen a girl play electric guitar.
A year later, she was the guitarist in the hugely influential all-girl band the Slits, who fearlessly took on the male-dominated music scene and became part of a movement that changed music.
A raw, thrilling story of life on the frontiers and a candid account of Viv’s life post-punk – taking in a career in film, the pain of IVF, illness and divorce and the triumph of making music again – Clothes Music Boys is a remarkable memoir.
So, we’ve been drinking all evening. What is your failsafe plan to avoid a hangover and your go-to cure if you do end up with one?
I have reached an age where I do try to avoid hangovers as they just seem to last so long. I’m genuinely quite good at moderation and learnt years ago (you need to on tour) to order a glass of water each time you order a glass of wine so you have a steady intake of water throughout the evening. Never drink on an empty stomach. The other thing is stick to quality alcohol. Touring in Germany is a joy as the beer is just so good and I rarely feel hung-over there (unless we’ve finished the evening with copious schnapps which is lethal). Always have a glass of water before sleeping and if you’ve really overdone it make that a Berocca! Should none of that work then take a late breakfast at an outdoor café – double espresso, large fresh juice and water with a large fresh croissant – sorted.
After our fabulous night out, what would be your ideal way to spend the rest of a perfect weekend?
I’m not one for regular shopping but I love mooching round a good flea market (good for vintage lomo-cameras) or alternatively a musty bookshop or geeky record store. Saturday night is for finding an off-track bar to discover that new favourite singer/band – something cool and dark and damaged. As we are in Barcelona then the Museum of Contemporary Art is a must – great building, great exhibitions, great gift store. This an ideal Sunday thing to do and after wandering the gallery it’s perfect to take a light lunch at one of the neighbouring cafes and watch the ever present skater kids manoeuvring the concrete plaza out front. Maybe a decent art-house cinema Sunday evening – a cold war thriller or some new scandi-noir.
Thank you for joining me tonight, Grae, it has been a refreshingly rock ‘n’ roll evening!
Grae’s latest book, The Sound of Revolution can be found at www.graejwall.com/books (also available in e-format from regular platforms). The mouseclubvirusblues album can be found at www.graejwall.bandcamp.com . Whether you want to contribute or just check out the posts come join https://www.facebook.com/groups/thepoetryunderground . For regular gig updates go to www.facebook.com/trashvilleUK .
Grae J. Wall is a poet, songwriter and lomographer from St Albans UK
As an eternal troubadour, Grae’s poems and songs are often inspired by his road trips, with narratives set in the motels of Bakersfield, the bar-rooms of Berlin and the back-streets of Paris. Grae has performed at Glastonbury, Boomtown, Bestival and many more intimate festivals and venues across Europe.
Recent (actual and virtual) gigs have included Paris Lit Up, The Poetry Cafe, The Festival of New Ideas and All in the Mind Festival. Grae’s work has appeared in and on many publications, radio shows and podcasts including recent contributions to Rebelzine (Extinction Rebellion), The Rising Sun Isolation Quilt, Invisible Folk Club and Artists Responding To.
Grae J. and Los Chicos Muertos have shared the stage with inspirational characters including TV Smith, Patrik Fitzgerald, John Cooper Clarke and Jowe Head as well as backing Ed Tudorpole a few times on live renditions of Swords of a Thousand Men. They have also collaborated on the production of the acclaimed Knoxville Boy album with Knox (The Vibrators) .
Grae runs both The Poetry Underground and Isolation Arts Cafe group pages on Facebook. He has been a regular promoter as well as performer over the years facilitating gigs in many back room bars as well as showcases at Glastonbury and Trafalgar Square.