Friday, 25 February 2011

How to survive an open mic night

I’m standing watching a middle-aged man with the hair of George Lucas and the girth of Richard Griffiths sing an old Appalachian folk song about having sex with a twelve year-old girl. He’s wearing braces without irony and, I suspect, long johns. As he moves on to bellowing a chorus about how he’s going to remove her knickers with a dagger and screws his eyes shut to emphasise how this is a very serious moment, I’m finding it very hard to supress tears of laughter. “At least,” I think to myself, “it can’t get any more surreal.” Oh how wrong I am.

We’re in the upstairs room of the LHT Urban Bar in Whitechapel for the Spoonful of Poison open mic night. Downstairs is a traditional East End boozer where geezers are putting the world to rights, but up the rickety stairs is a whole different world. I feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. And landing in an episode of Father Ted.

Next up is the self-titled ‘worm lady’, the kind of woman who would be rejected by Britain’s Got Talent on sight for being too mental. She’s apparently a regular and delivers several poems about the sexual habits of worms in a slightly preachy headmistress style. She’s accessorising with a bum bag, which she’s managed to customise so she can nonchalantly sling it over her shoulder, and some neon pink socks. You wonder what tragedy has occurred in her life that she only has worms as a subject matter, until she gets on to her most ambitious verse yet – a treatise about how great civilisations are built on, yes, you guessed it, the hard work of worms. It’s surprisingly engaging, although the tears of laughter are once again streaming when she announces its arrival with probably the greatest sentence ever uttered: “This next one’s about civilisation…and worms.”

Thankfully there’s then a small break which gives us all a chance to calm down. I cast a wary eye around and end up talking to a very sweet poet with long flowing hair and an incredibly soft voice. She’s apparently an open mic regular and says that she comes for the sense of companionship. She gives me a CD even though she only has a couple left because she thinks I’ll enjoy it. She’s very excited when I tell her I’m writing an article about the night and tells me that it’s a shame that the talents of the performers are unknown outside of the open mic community. For a second I think she’s joking but then I realise she’s deadly serious.

A couple of non-descript comedians follow – one with musical accompaniment, one without, and then an acoustic Jack Johnson-meets-The Automatic act who are relatively forgettable. Another break and then the star turn of the night takes to the stage – Jazzman John Clarke. Clearly an open mic legend, the Jazzman plays a bamboo flute and recites surprisingly good beat poetry in the style of Gil Scott Heron. Except his subject matter isn’t the Bronx, but Lewisham. He looks a bit dirty and has huge glasses that make his eyes comically large but he’s the first act of the night that hasn’t made me cringe completely. He’s also a kindly figure, taking the chance in the interval to publicise several South London charity projects he’s involved with and ask us for clothes donations. If he got on the same bus as you, you’d probably try and avoid him, but he’s actually a nice guy.

If things had started to take a slightly less surreal turn, we’re soon back on track with the next couple of acts – a burlesque styled poet, a comedian whose routine entirely focuses on panda sex and a musical act whose commitment to tunelessness is almost commendable. As the singer howls like a banshee and bangs a synth indiscriminately, my eyes are desperately scanning the exit. Is it bad form to leave halfway through an act? By the time she gets to the shamanic chanting I reckon that this might actually be what hell sounds like. The bell signalling the end of the set sees palpable relief etched on everyone’s faces and also signals my cue to leave.

It’s been a somewhat overwhelming night. I’m still in a bit of a daze as I head home, but I muse that as mad as these people are, the fact they have a place they can express themselves and be encouraged has got to be positive. The kindly poet was right about the sense of community, and even the bad acts are received politely. It’s been a very entertaining night, if not for the reasons intended. I also leave with a vastly improved knowledge of the sex life of a worm. Which isn’t bad for a Thursday night.

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