Step Off The Stage

7 May 2009

Mark E. Smith. Ajanta Cinema Derby, sometime in 1977 or 1978, back at the time when he was talking at least as much as singing, punctuating the songs with extended delirious rants about the proliferation of psychics and Cash & Carry stores or the possibility of time travel or how much he did not like Doncaster, or the audience or Stalin you could never be sure which. Huge fucking row of music, small audience. A venue that used to be, by some incomprehensible irony, The Derby Playhouse (I mean before they built that new one with hexagonal barstools and purple orange cross-hatch carpets) and was by then (the old playhouse, re-named as Ajanta Cinema), a semi-derelict music venue run by some Asian guys maybe as a front for a drugs ring at least if you believed what was gonna be in the paper ten months later, who knows.

Just in front of the stage there is a space that used to be seats, but which has been for some months now an extended no-mans land, a zone of smashed floorboards and seat-remains – a cleared space created when the first gig took place here and at which the room allowed for the crowd was patently not big enough and so by Mutual Agreement the seats were kicked to pieces by those present, the debris for the most part lifted high and Hurled Asunder, causing minor injuries. It is this space – directly to the front of the stage that Smith has his eyes on, when he turns around, neglecting the routine that he himself has characterised as ‘backs to the audience and pass the hair-dye mate’ though he of course has no hair dye. This space, right there in front of the stage, this no mans land, is clearly bothering him, big time. Maybe cos there’s no one in it – I mean there’s only fifty people in the venue max and most of them are leant against the walls holding lager cans. And maybe its bugging him – this space – cos he’s not sure who’s it is. I mean – he’s on the stage and he’s wandering all around it like he owns the fucking place, which for all extents and purposes he does – but somehow he doesn’t seem so happy there on the stage – like he’d really like to be somewhere else, in some other place, a bigger one perhaps. Like somehow the stage is too small because it isn’t a whole world.   What does the character Price say about the nightclub in Trevor Griffith’s play Comedians? Something like: When I stand up there on the stage  – I still hit my head on the ceiling. It might be literally true – but mainly of course he means it more like a metaphor – a way to say, that the world which Capitalism has on offer isn’t big enough yet to accommodate his dreams or imaginings.

Anyhow back in Derby in either ’77 or ’78, Smith won’t take it for long. He’s at the very edge of the stage by this point, walking back and forth, pacing on the exact border, looking down off the low rise and into that other space – that other world, no-one in it and everyone eyeing it, a space in this case between him and the rest of us, a space not quite his and not quite claimed by the rest of us. Time passes. And then there’s a moment like there always is, a moment so good I won’t ever remember it, and could not in any case describe it, a moment in which he makes the jump and steps off the stage. He’s off, he’s over, gone into the emptiness down there, the band oblivious or inured to his probably amphetamine whimsy, and the music’s all thump and screech and grind and he’s wandering, caterwauling, out into the no-man’s land/wasteground that he’s somehow made his own now, barely tethered by the microphone lead and in some ways never to return.

That, was an inspiration. And no mistake of all.

Corridor Fall Poster - Aaron Williamson

More than a year ago I wrote a text for the inaugural symposium at Spill Festival in London. I started with the passage above (which I don’t think I’ve posted here before – apologies if I did). The whole text – about stages, performance, and all sorts – got published a while back. Anyways. I’ve since had a small correction from my friend the artist Aaron Williamson along with the image above.

Aaron wrote:
I was interested in your invocation of the Fall at the Ajanta Cinema in Derby. My band, the Corridor, were the support at that gig and there were no more than 30 people in the audience (including the support bands)! It was in June 1979 and not 77/78 as you wrote: it’s possible the Fall played in Derby at an earlier date but not at the Ajanta as the first gig put on there by the I.D. gang (Dave Bonsall, Pre-De) was UK Subs in January 79.

I’ve known Aaron since sometime in the early ’90s I think – but had no idea that I’d seen him perform back in the ’70s! We must’ve been at a lot of the same gigs together. Aaron also flagged that “a Derby lad Johnny Vincent, has recently published a book that focuses on the Ajanta Cinema as a punk venue“. I’m intrigued – my memories of all that are a bit blurred.

Still on the late ’70s and hoping not to get too nostalgic for the misery. Hard not to notice the resurgence of interest in the wreckers of civillisation Throbbing Gristle who are touring again. A bunch of links and a new interview at Boing Boing. I’m seriously wondering about going to Glasgow to see them – it’s about 30 years since I first saw them last (again at the Ajanta in Derby) at a gig that’s still pretty much burned into me.