It wasn’t the music journalism, it wasn’t the dressing up as a woman on the Old Grey Whistle Test, it wasn’t the novel. It wasn’t even when I found out that he used to go out with my boss and she told me the story of how he puked bright pink pepto-bismol all over Dollywood. Well, it was some of that. But really, it was the poetry.
Sometime during the 1980s I walked into a ballroom bar in the Derbyshire Miners’ Holiday Camp in Skegness just in time to hear a skinhead on stage declaiming ‘If I was a man I’d be at the bar, ‘cos only poofs read poems.’ It was hardly surprising: this was the SWP’s annual Easter getaway, and Seething Wells was part of the evening’s entertainment. But already dimly aware somewhere in my adolescent heart that writing poetry was indeed an effete and shameful activity, something struck home.
I’ve been taught to write better poetry than I used to, and I’ve read many poets I admire, but I think that, slight oeuvre though it may be, the ranting verse of Seething Wells forms the third point of an unholy trinity (alongside The Mersey Sound and Childish’s Hangman Press) that first made me really love poetry. Atilla the Stockbroker made a better career of it (even immortalising Swells himself in verse), but I always thought Wells was the better poet: there was something about the way the words came rolling straight out, their righteous hatred intact, no trace of technique, all sneer and attitude. Like the lyrics to a song you listened to every day, I can still do big chunks of Tetley Bittermen verbatim.
Until I gave up reading music mags, I’d read his stuff, and more recently the Philadelphia Weekly columns whenever Anna sent me a link. I particularly loved his all-out balls-out attack on hipsters. But none of it came close to the ranting verse, and I always missed it. Once, in the mid-nineties it came back, around the time that (the seriously good) Tits-Out Teenage Terror Totty was published. I remember seeing him doing a reading in an arch under the seafront at Brighton alongside Stewart Home and Tony White. He did some of the poems too, and they were every bit as good as the first time I heard them. I remember him (perhaps not entirely reliably) contorting his body as he read, wrapping himself around the mic, twisting himself to wrangle out the fury that still underlay the words.
I didn’t even know he was dying, hadn’t read the cancer stuff, wasn’t prepared for the news I read today. And because I wanted to hear the words again, because I couldn’t find them anywhere else, I dug out the tape I made more than twenty years ago from my old man’s Rising Son of Ranting Verse EP (a double header with Little Brother, not the Attila one), and made this rather scratchy MP3
There were four of us, and five of them
But they were poofs, and we were men
TETLEY TETLEY TETLEY Bittermen
Update: I’ve since discovered the whole EP: here’s the full first side from Seething Wells:
and for good measure, here’s the other side, from Little Brother
Here’s another seven inches of Swells, from the Radical Wallpaper EP Live at Wandsworth, featuring Godzilla Vs The Tetley Bittermen
and the other side, this time from Atilla The Stockbroker