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Sunday Lunch at ATP

Words: Cathi Unsworth/Pictures: Sean Carrillo.

(Cathi, Lydia Lunch)

Earwigging into our conversation about the many skills of our co-performer John Tottenham the barman turned to Lydia Lunch in astonishment.

“Have you come all the way from America just to come to Butlins?” he enquired in a thick Brummie brogue, not itself indigenous to our Minehead locale.

“No,” said Lydia. “I live in Barcelona now.”

His jaw dropped just a little bit further.

“Have you come all the way from Spain just to come to Butlins then?”

His awe could not be assuaged by her explanation of why we, and hundreds of other happy campers had descended to this beautiful corner of Somerset to spend the weekend amongst the chalets and the crazy golf. That, after a glorious night blasting our ears out to the triumphant return of The Jesus Lizard and the awesome sonic overload of Sleep, six of us writers, poets, performers and oral fetishists would be airing our Horribly True Confessions in ATP’s first Spoken Word event.

He wandered away, shaking his head and muttering about stag parties.

But just for the record — Lydia, what where we doing in Butlins?

“I usually dread festivals of any kind,” explained the raven-haired goddess. “Too impersonal, too crowded, too difficult to navigate. The genius of All Tomorrow’s Parties is that it always feels like a big, well-organized weekend sleepover. The programs are fantastic, the atmosphere is chilled yet charged, it feels intimate, but not suffocating and the audience is really open and supportive.

“This was my fifth performance at ATP. Previously invited by Thurston Moore, Vincent Gallo, Mars Volta and last December by The Melvins/Mike Patton to resuscitate Teenage Jesus (featuring Thurston and Jim Sclavunos) – which was of course a blast (of audio torture!). Thurston and I arrived early and were having dinner with the delightful Barry Hogan and Deborah Kee Higgins, the brains and hearts behind ATP. With a bit of gentle strong-arming, I suggested curating Horribly True Confessions. ATP have supported word artists in the past, (Saul Williams, Jon Sinclair, etc) the first event I did with them was spoken word. They agreed-and the line up came together.”

(Lydia, Barry Hogan)

Lydia has done more than probably anyone else to push the spoken word as a vital artform, joining Henry Rollins while he flexed his tonsils to the task and luring her formative inspiration Hubert Selby Jr out of obscurity in the Eighties was only the beginning of her working. She has consistently pursued her vision across the globe, confronting with every word her own “contamination of genetic mutation, environmental hazards, moral pollution, hormonal imbalance and toxic emotions”; while at the same time offering invaluable support and inspiration for new voices out there.

The line-up for ATP was a like-minded mix of red fingernails and sharp suits. Opening the proceedings was LA-exiled Londoner, the poete maudit John Tottenham — a man for whom the word ‘deadpan’ would be one grievous understatement. In a voice that recalled E L Wisty summoning his swimming ravens from beyond the tomb, John read from Inertia Variations, a meditation of 78 poems on the themes of procrastination, laziness, work-avoidance, failure and other such afflictions. Begging the audience to “calm down” between each eulogy to ennui, the apathetic alchemist turned his own boredom into comedy gold.

The only way I could follow this genius was to attempt a little shape-shifting of my own, to enter the Sinister Sixties world of the novel that has been obsessing me for the past two years and will be published later this year by Serpent’s Tail, Bad Penny Blues. Tales from the dark spaces between the bright lights of Belgravia and Soho were my attempt to give voice to two women murdered 45 years ago by a phantom killer who was never apprehended.

(Bibbe Hansen, Lydia)

I was imagining, but Bibbe Hansen was recalling a fiend from her own childhood with her mesmerizing trip down bad memory lane Gaton Rhymes With Satan. Bibbe is the daughter of Fluxus artist Al and actress Audrey Hansen and mother of Beck; an artist who grew up fast between the bright lights and the low dives on the streets of NYC, performing with her father, starring in Andy Warhol’s films, and as this piece relays, running into speed freak psycho central on the Lower East Side:

We walk east on Bleeker and I think about everything I know about Gaton. First, he’s an escapee from Mattewan Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He wasn’t released, he ain’t cured, he hasn’t done his time—he busted out. I don’t know the details of why he went in but it was probably something pretty bad. When he showed up downtown a couple months back everyone seemed pretty concerned. People say he has unfinished business relating back to what happened at the end of the Great Amphetamine War of 1961. They don’t like to talk about him or those days and they get nervous whenever his name comes up…

Bibbe was only 13 when she ran into this nightmare.

Tapping into another adolescent trauma, but this time from the lower east side of London, Martyn Waites was next up, reading ‘Love’, the highlight and almost-award-winning short story from 2006’s London Noir anthology. Written after the BNP’s shock victory in the 2004 Barking and Dagenham by-election and set in that depressed borough, Martyn wove the story of a confused young fascist footsoldier struggling to contain his own true identity. Dropping carefully timed bombshells at every turn, ‘Love’ dissected the doctrine of hate and the political opportunism that fosters it within neglected, poverty-stricken, jobless communities to electrifying and horribly resonant effect. Despite his self-effacing asides about his Dick Van Dyke cockney accent, as a performer Martyn will always get my vote as the Jimi Hendrix of British Crime fiction.

(Jake Arnott, Bibbe, Martyn Waites, Cathi, John Tottenham)

Suave seer of the secret history, Jake Arnott is the man who always knows just what’s going on behind the green door. In his forthcoming new novel The Devil’s Paintbrush he opens it up in the dining room of the Hotel Regina, in the Paris of 24 March 1903. Sitting alone at a table, the great Empire General Hector MacDonald is brooding on a scandal that threatens to destroy him when he is espied by a corpulent but dandyish man, who makes his way across the floor to introduce himself. With masterful mimicry, Jake plucked from the air a bejeweled hand opening up like a fan, a voice like crushed velvet announcing: “Aleister Crowley. At your service.” The Devil’s Paintbrush, based on the true meeting of the bravest of soldiers and the master magician is the work of an author at the height of his own formidable powers.

Having summoned The Beast through the portal of history, only the most powerful of Hexecutioners could banish him and spellbind us instead with her own purgatorial visions. Here she was, resplendent. Reading ‘Johnny Behind The Deuce’ from her forthcoming Akashic anthology Will Work For Drugs Lydia took us through one long, hallucinogenic night of sick desire and pharmacological excess, bent bulls and bitch boys to the nicotine-stained crashing dawn. Dropping in lyrics from Lynard Skynard, rapid-fire acid wisecracks and scathing critiques of both cop mentality and the impulses of mass murderers, Lydia delivered a devastating denouement:

Women don’t kill for no reason. When a woman murders, it’s usually a crime of passion – lover, ex-boyfriend, husband. Not a pack of prostitutes. That’s man’s work, right? Killing off over and over again, the replicons of their first, their last, their ever-present rejection. Killing again and again, their lousy mother, the haughty cheerleader who subbed them in tenth grade, the prom queen who at the last minute went to the dance with the football hero, the night nurse, the convenience store clerk, the women who represented their tortured libidos all those who wouldn’t give it up before, but were selling it off in little chunks now, to anyone who could afford it… That’s what Bundy and Speck and Ramirez did. That’s not what women do.

It was a Sunday Revival Tent meeting like no other that brought us to Butlins. I will leave the last words to the woman who made it possible:

“Sunday afternoon is a perfect time to host readings. Ease the sleepy audience into the rest of a fun filled day by exposing your dirty panties, nasty fantasies and horribly true confessions. The musicality of a good reading is a seductive lubricant for the sonic assualt that was to follow. There’s something magically intoxicating when the naked word can stir up enough images and emotions to transport you into somebody else’s universe. The whole reason I still consider spoken word such an important medium.”

Cathi Unsworth is a former journalist for Sounds, Melody Maker and Bizarre and recently wrote the novels The Not Knowing and The Singer, as well as editing the London Noir crime writing anthology, all on Serpent’s Tail. Read her 2008 interview at 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 16th, 2009.